First mother charged under drug 'assault' law

Jul 15, 2014

New law criminalising drug use during pregnancy is 'well-intentioned' but dangerous, say doctors

Ian Waldie/Getty Images

The first mother has been charged under a new Tennessee's law which allows a woman to be charged with assault if she uses drugs while pregnant.

Mallory Layola was arrested last week after her newborn baby tested positive for methamphetamine, reports ABC news. She later admitted to smoking the drug days before giving birth.

The controversial law came into effect less than two weeks ago. It allows charges ranging from misdemeanours to aggravated assault to be brought against a mother who abuses drugs while pregnant causing harm to the foetus. If convicted, women could face a jail sentences of up to 15 years.

Proponents of the law say that it will act as an effective deterrent to mothers."Hopefully it will send a signal to other women who are pregnant and have a drug problem to seek help", County Sheriff Bill Bivens said. "That's what we want them to do."

But health and women's rights campaigners argue it will achieve the opposite result. By increasing penalties for drug use during pregnancy, they say the state is discouraging women from coming forward to seek help in dealing with their addiction.

They also say it will put the health of both the mother and child at greater risk, as women will be too scared to visit a doctor for essential pre-natal care.

Every major medical group in the US has condemned the new law, arguing that while such legislation is "well-intentioned", it could be dangerous to both mother and child.

"These punitive measures are ineffective," Rebecca Terrell, the chair of Healthy and Free Tennessee, told Think Progress. "We are already receiving reports of women seeking out non-licensed health providers to avoid having a medical record and risking arrest. This is extremely dangerous."

While Tennessee is the first state to explicitly penalise drug use during pregnancy, several other states have previously used child abuse laws to prosecute mothers, the Washington Post reports.

Republican governor of Tennessee Bill Haslam, who signed the bill into law, said he was aware of the concerns and would monitor the implementation of the law.

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