Tiffany Roberts and the Harmful Pattern of Criminalizing Pregnant Mothers

Tiffany Roberts, a Chattanooga woman, faced felony charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse when her twins died two days after a premature delivery at 23 weeks.

Roberts had checked in with doctors regularly throughout her pregnancy and tested positive for narcotics. Ecstasy was in her system while giving birth, and the twins tested positive for drugs, such as cocaine, after birth—factors that led medical personnel to T.C. Thompson Children’s Hospital to call the police after the twins died of pulmonary hemorrhaging.

According to a Hamilton County spokesperson, the medical examiner said the cause of the twin’s death “could not be linked solely with Roberts’ alleged drug abuse.” Still, Roberts spent one week in Hamilton County jail. Her bail was posted at $1 million before all charges were dropped.

The arrest garnered attention from the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), one of America’s only organizations solely focused on defending the legal rights and protections of pregnant people. Nancy Rosenbloom, the director of legal advocacy for NAPW, questioned the grounds for arrest.  

“None of the charges are fair,” Rosenbloom told local reporters, “and none of the charges are constitutional or supported by Tennessee law from what we can tell.”

“We need to have compassion for this woman. Those babies died. She’s suffering. It is the worst possible response to charge someone with crime in those situations.”

Roberts’ arrest came in the wake of national outrage sparked by the case of Marshae Jones, who was shot in the stomach while pregnant and then charged with manslaughter by the state of Alabama. But Roberts’ case didn’t attract similar attention—likely because she didn’t comfortably align with narratives in the abortion debate that make for good headlines. Her struggles with addiction echoed the pervasive and racist “crack mother” narrative that has shaped culture since the 80’s.

Attempts to criminalize expecting women for the systematic difficulties that plagued their lives before pregnancy have only increased, but women with drug addictions have long been persecuted.

23 states consider substance use during pregnancy child abuse, and many more have statutes threatening pregnant women struggling with substance abuse with jail time if discovered by authorities. Tennessee had a “fetal assault” criminalizing substance use during pregnancy from 2014 to 2016—before research showed the bill had more adverse effects than positives, the worst of which was a deterrent effect, where mothers in need simply avoided doctor visits.

“For someone to believe that they cannot have prenatal care without some type of criminalization or punishment, then people are certainly not going to go in,” Aarin Michelle Williams, Senior Staff Attorney for NAPW, told Ms. “And that actually causes a public health concern that we should all be engaged in.”

The American Public Health Association has defended the rights of women struggling with addiction since 1990. In 2017, the American Medical Association (AMA) urged for more programs for pregnant women struggling with addiction.

“Support is crucial,” the AMA said in a statement, “for establishing and making broadly available specialized treatment programs for drug-addicted pregnant and breastfeeding women wherever possible.”

A 2013 Tennessee law known as “Safe Harbor” states that a woman struggling with drug abuse will not be in jeopardy of losing her baby if she opts to receive treatment before the 21st week of pregnancy. Treatment centers receiving state funding are also required to prioritize pregnant women under the law.

But without proper support and programs that provide access to treatment centers and childcare, statues like these cannot adequately protect pregnant women struggling with addiction—like Tiffany Roberts.

For example, Williams noted that around the same time Safe Harbor was enacted, Medicaid programs were being pulled back—leaving many women without a health care provider to visit to enroll in a program.

Furthermore, Safe Harbor requires women enroll in treatment programs, some 30-60 days long, leaving women without work and scrambling for childcare in many cases.

“The Safe Harbor Act is really not effective and doesn’t go far enough,” said Williams. “The state of Tennessee and many states are not doing it correctly  by just thinking that they’re going to put into legislation of kind of these kinds of laws without the proper mechanisms of support and proper treatment programs.”

Laws in other states created to protect pregnant women prove also to be useless or can be weaponized against them.

Heather Shumaker, the National Women’s Law Center’s senior counsel for Reproductive Rights and Health, said Roberts’ case is one of many examples of “states criminalizing pregnant women and criminalizing their actions rather than creating supports for people who need them.”

Alabama’s 2006 “chemical endangerment of a child” law was created to protect children from growing up in homes converted into meth labs but was weaponized against women with histories with addiction. Today, over 1,800 women have been arrested under the statute.

Alabama jailed Marshae Jones—instead of the person that shot her—on a “fetal homicide,’” a law similar to those in 37 other states aimed at increasing sentences for murderers of pregnant women. As abortion advocates have gained strength in the recent years, 29 state legislatures have developed addendums applying these laws to the earliest stages of pregnancy.  

Coverage for maternal care has increased as awareness of the U.S.’s high maternal mortality rate has spread—but laws threatening women’s right to safe reproductive care are far from new. States with a history of criminalizing maternal health decisions, like Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas, often share similar stances on other women’s issues such as abortion.

“I don’t think there are as many protections for pregnant women as people would like to think,” Williams said. “We need to recognize that raising awareness about the dangers of eliminating abortion is not enough. It doesn’t go far enough to educating people or dealing with a lot of issues that that face pregnant people.”


Rachel Kennedy is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and Associate Opinion Editor for The Daily Princetonian. A Bostonian by birth and a feminist by choice, she hopes to empower women by sharing their stories. She is particularly interested in covering maternal healthcare, women activists, pop culture, and politics. Rachel currently studies History, Journalism, and African American studies at Princeton University.