Every hour, one baby is born to a mother with an opiate addiction. These babies’ first days are a painful struggle that requires extra care and attention from a medical professional. The baby’s mother, who has just added one big responsibility to the problem she’s already facing, needs love and care, too.
Tennessee is addressing this problem the wrong way. A new law makes it a crime to take drugs while pregnant, and 26-year-old mother Mallory Loyola became the first person to be charged under the law when she and her baby tested positive for meth after the baby’s birth. The bill’s cosponsor, Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, said her bill aims at women who deserve punishment: “These ladies are the worst of the worst. Again, I want to emphasize what they are thinking about, and that is just money for the next high.”
That type of condemnation betrays a deep misunderstanding about the nature of addiction and motherhood. As someone who works with mothers who struggle with addiction at Demeter House, I can tell you that incarceration, criminalization, and stigmatization aren’t the right approach.
With pregnant and addicted women, the judgment has to stop at the door of the treatment facility. We need to encourage the mothers, no matter how they got here, to finish treatment, for their own sake and for the safety of the baby. The Tennessee law says a woman can use treatment completion as a defense against criminal charges, but this hardly erases the fact that the law deters women from seeking out treatment in the first place. Women have to feel free to get the help they need, and the threat of a jail sentence just won’t help.
There are already too many barriers for addicted mothers and pregnant women to find treatment. For one thing, they need medical care, prenatal care, and medication for medical stabilization, which not all treatment facilities offer. Especially in the case of opiate addiction, quitting suddenly and without medication stabilization can be devastating to the woman’s body and child, causing physical trauma and miscarriage.
Many of these women are already struggling to be good moms and caretakers, and that’s yet another reason it’s difficult for them to seek treatment. When a woman faces addiction and considers treatment, she’s not just thinking about “money for the next high.” She’s also thinking about who will take care of the kids she already has, a quandary that many men seeking treatment don’t have to think about. Most of the women we see are heads of their households. They fear losing their children and they worry that the men or the parents in their lives won’t be able to handle the caretaking if they leave for treatment.
And finally, these women experience shame and guilt that can hinder them from facing their addiction head-on. At Demeter House, our gender-specific parenting curriculum deals directly with this shame and guilt by helping women understand that their problem is a disease, not a moral failing. They may wake up in the morning with their brain craving a drug, but they don’t wake up thinking, “How will I hurt my family today?”
As we consider how to help moms, we should remember that this is not the first time drug-dependent mothers have been judged and criminalized instead of helped. In the 1980s and 1990s, “crack baby” hysteria led to a wave of laws that criminalized and incarcerated people with addictions. Years later, our communities are still devastated by addiction and incarceration.
Let’s not make the same mistake this time. Leave judgment behind, and help mothers jump the obstacles to get the help they need.