Is Tennessee's So-Called Fetal Assault Law Working?

By McCarton Ackerman 11/24/15

Some already want to repeal the highly controversial law.

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Tennessee’s highly controversial “fetal assault” law, which was established last year, has been sending pregnant women to jail who use drugs while pregnant. But the threat of imprisonment has not deterred pregnant women from using drugs.

Senate Bill 1391 was passed in April 2014, and two months later, Mallory Loyola became the first person charged under it after she gave birth to a baby girl and admitted to smoking meth while pregnant. Anyone arrested under the law can have the charges dropped by successfully completing a rehab program (which Loyola later did), but they can face a potential 15-year prison term for aggravated assault if the baby is born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).

A new report from Nashville Public Radio showed that the fetal assault law has been ineffective. More than 20 women were charged this year in Sullivan County alone, while the Tri-Cities area has among the highest rates in the country of babies being born that need to detox. There has also been no change throughout the state in babies being born with NAS compared to this time last year.

It’s possible that the law could be repealed this legislative session, but those who endorsed it still believe it needs more time to be successful.

“I’m just going to stand my ground on the fact that I believe wholeheartedly this bill does help,” said State Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, who sponsored the statute. “It does help these women that are in situations [and] never would have gotten the help they needed.”

But some women claim the law has done the opposite, admitting to being too scared to get prenatal care and help for their problem out of fear they might go to jail. Others are simply opposed to criminalizing non-violent offenders for their drug use.

However, many of these women who went into treatment out of fear of prosecution said the experience changed their life for the better. A classic example is that of Loyola, who is now working at a sobriety organization.

“If I didn’t go through what I went through, I’d probably be down that same road right now," said 26-year-old mother Kim Walker of Johnson City. "But now I’m a totally different person. And I’m on the good road, not the bad road.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.