At around midnight on November 13, Tonya Martin slipped out into the yard that separated her trailer from the one in which her grandparents live on a lot in the eastern hills of Tennessee. Just two months earlier, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department arrested Martin after she gave birth to a son. Her crime: delivering a child at Sweetwater Hospital with drugs—some kind of opioid—in his system.

Martin couldn’t shake her addiction or the depression that plagued her. The 34-year-old mother gave up the newborn for adoption. Not long after, Martin’s boyfriend found her dangling from the clothesline pole in her grandmother’s yard. He tried to resuscitate her, but it was too late…

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When she went into labor in late 2014, Brittany Hudson couldn’t go to the hospital. The 24-year-old East Tennessee native had been abusing prescription drugs for years and knew that, under a new state law, if her baby was born showing signs of her drug use, Hudson could be sent to jail. That was the reason she’d forgone prenatal care for most of her pregnancy. Hudson was already in labor when she went with a friend to see a midwife, but it was too late. She gave birth to her daughter in the backseat of her friend’s car on the side of the road, where her friend cleaned her up after. Then she turned around and went home….

Hudson didn’t have much time alone with her new daughter. Someone reported her to law enforcement, and just days after giving birth, she was contacted by the police, who asked her to check in at the hospital, where her newborn, Braylee, went into withdrawal. Almost a week later, while Braylee was still in intensive care, Hudson was arrested, charged with assault, and jailed.

Hudson was charged under Tennessee’s new fetal-assault statute, passed in the spring of 2014 as part of a push to combat an opioid addiction epidemic in the state. The newly revised measure, which is the first law of its kind in the nation, allows the state to prosecute women for illegally using narcotics while pregnant, if the child is born “addicted to or harmed by” the drugs…

For example, a pregnant woman in her ninth month was arrested in 2014 for “engaging in conduct which placed her baby in eminent danger or death or serious bodily injury,” according to the warrant. What did she do? Drove without a seatbelt…

By 2010, Tennessee’s opioid overdose rate was almost twice as high as the national average, and in 2012 Tennessee was the second-highest opioid-prescribing state, after Alabama. That year, the state’s lawmakers enacted the Prescription Safety Act, meant to combat opioid abuse. The statute required that physicians use a centralized database to look up their patients’ records before prescribing more pain medication. But it didn’t make a dent in the problem. Opioid abuse continued to rage throughout the state, and in 2014, the number of opioid-related deaths increased from the year before, surpassing the number of people killed by car accidents or gunshots…

The idea that vast numbers of pregnant women are putting their infants at risk by using drugs like heroin is misguided; nationally, about 5 percent of pregnant women report use of illegal drugs (mostly marijuana) during pregnancy. Nonetheless, media hype has crafted a narrative of disgust around parents of babies with NAS…

NAS is a highly treatable condition without long-term effects… But even more damning is this: the law hasn’t decreased NAS births statewide. Since its implementation, such births have actually increased…

5 thoughts on “Thinking of you, Tonya Martin

  1. This is America, which often prefers the fist wherever a helping hand is needed. This is a fine example of why prosecutors should never be involved in creating laws. On the whole they tend to be careerist sociopaths who are only concerned with finding new ways to throw people in jail, not justice. It’s clear they put zero thought into the unfairness of this law or the likelihood that like most drug laws it would increase harms rather than reduce them. All that matters is that someone gets punished so the state can say it is dealing with the problem. Witch burning helps to keep the proles in line as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a recovering addict who knows many other recovery addicts I know many many women who have used drugs and drank heavily during pregnancy including those whose children have been born addicted to heroin. Jailing mothers is not the answer as – just as you say in this post – it drives the problem underground and mothers avoid pre-natal hospital checks. Unfortunately I’ve heard time and time again from addicted mothers that their addiction is just too strong for them to stop during pregnancy. If pregnant women had access to treatment programmes without the threat of their babies being taken away as soon as they are born maybe more would be able to do something about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I never understand why when a law is put in place things increase.
    I can see that they wouldn’t change, but increase? why?
    There needs to be some way to help these addicted women get help while they are pregnant to avoid NAS.
    I’ve seen the results of fetal alcohol syndrome and it is included in what they call NAS, so saying it is highly treatable and doesn’t cause any lasting effects is simply naive.
    I volunteered on the Ute and Cherokee nations helping in the school system and the cases of fetal alcohol syndrome were staggering.
    These children has birth defects, both physical and mental. Yes some children were not harmed in the long run, but seeing the effects of FAS on children, I really wish we could help these mothers stop taking any drugs or alcohol during pregnancy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re talking about two different conditions. FAS and NAS are not the same. And wishing we could stop pregnant woman from taking drugs is not going to change reality.


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