Gavin Barney, LSRJ Summer Intern (’16, University of California, Berkeley School of Law)
The start of August marked a somewhat ignominious one month anniversary this year: a short thirty-one days earlier Tennessee became the first state in the union to specifically criminalize drug use during pregnancy. On July 1st, the state enacted SB 1391, which enables prosecutors to bring assault charges on the behalf of a fetus against women who use narcotics while pregnant. Just over a week later, 26-year-old Mallory Loyola became the first target of the law.
In a twisted kind of way, Tennessee’s approach to criminalizing pregnant women is almost refreshing. The Volunteer State is by no means the only state to treat drug using and drug addicted pregnant women with prison sentences and loss of parental rights instead of … well … treatment. Not by a long shot. Other states prosecute pregnant women at high levels with three main methods: child abuse and endangerment laws, laws prohibiting delivery of illegal drugs to minors, and fetal murder/manslaughter statutes.
Alabama prosecutes pregnant women in a particularly roundabout and unnerving method. Since 2006, Alabama has arrested at least 100 pregnant women for the crime of “exposing their child to a meth lab” using a chemical endangerment law designed to prosecute people who bring children to dangerous locations. To make matters worse, the Alabama Supreme Court deemed it necessary to affirm this usage of the chemical endangerment laws in back to back years – holding in 2014 that the statute’s use of the word “child” “plainly and unambiguously includes unborn children.”
Medical and public health organization such as the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have criticized these punitive practices for putting both mothers and fetuses at risk by discouraging women from seeking prenatal care for fear of being turned in.* Additionally, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has stressed that treatment, not incarceration, must be the approach to these cases.
However, at a broader level, policies like those in Tennessee and Alabama are most horrifying and destructive because they answer the question “are pregnant women still people with full rights?” with an emphatic “hell no they’re not!” Like other personhood-type policies, special criminal prosecutions pits pregnant drug using and addicted women in conflict with their fetus, putting the full force of the law on the fetus’s side (or at least against the woman).
For more information on criminalization of pregnant women, check out LSRJ’s fact sheet on “Regulation of Pregnant Women,” and for LSRJ chapters interested in hosting an event on the issue, LSRJ is releasing an Event Toolkit on Criminalization of Pregnancy and Shackling of Incarnated Pregnant Women.
*Note that fifteen states require health care providers to report suspected drug use during pregnancy.