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Pregnancy Criminalization Laws Shed Light on Struggle of Mothers With Addiction

Reproductive rights, criminal justice advocates, and most medical organizations have slammed Tennessee's draconian law punishing women addicts.

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By Victoria Kim

08/01/14

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This month, the first arrest under Tennessee’s new pregnancy criminalization law was made. According to the law, which was passed in April, “a woman may be prosecuted for assault for the illegal use of a narcotic drug while pregnant, if her child is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug.”

Mallory Loyola, 26, was charged with assault after her newborn tested positive for meth. The law, which is the first of its kind in the United States, is opposed by reproductive rights and criminal justice advocates, as well as every major medical organization, from the American Medical Association to the American Public Health Association.

“This is doing nothing but pushing addicts into hiding,” said Shannon Casteel, 30, a mother in recovery. “Is it supposed to scare addicts? You think jail is going to scare them?” Casteel experienced first hand the difficulty that pregnant women who struggle with addiction face.

A report published by Young Women United, a community organization dedicated to helping pregnant women in New Mexico struggling with addiction, found that an overwhelming majority of women surveyed felt they were being judged when trying to receive prenatal care. The women who shared their experiences in the report, “Everyday Struggles Everyday Strengths,” described “intense feelings of fear” and felt they were being treated without kindness or respect by their providers.

“People don’t understand their story. There’s automatic judgment,” said Monica Simpson, executive director of Sister Song Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective. “They put them in the ‘bad mother’ category. This is not promoting family values. This is making folks live in fear. You can’t grow a family in fear,” she said.

Programs like El Milagro Program at the University of New Mexico Hospital are praised by Young Women United. El Milagro was the first program in the state for pregnant women with addiction issues. The program has served over 2,000 women since 1989, but due to budget issues, inpatient services were cut in 2011.

“The Milagro program worked. They helped me out a lot,” said Myra Salazar, a participant in the Young Women United report. “I was living in their housing and going to the groups and outings they had for us. We all had to learn and practice cooking. Milagro helped me get food stamps and housing. That kept me from using,” she told Truthout.

Simpson said there is a desperate need for holistic programs that are specifically tailored to pregnant women that integrate parenting, counseling, and nutrition.

After her own experience as a pregnant woman seeking help, Casteel is dreaming up a different kind of treatment facility for pregnant women that would provide a space to receive the holistic care they need while still living with their children. “The misconception is that there’s a choice in the matter,” she said. “These people [lawmakers] are looking for a quick fix, a short-term solution. Women are so afraid of losing their children that they hide.”

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