Tasha Adams, a stay-at-home mother of three, has been cleared of child endangerment after she was arrested for drinking while breastfeeding this past November. The charges were dropped last week after the deputy city attorney for Conway, Arkansas determined there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that she had too many drinks to care for her child.
Last fall, Adams had no idea she had done anything to break the law when the police showed up at the restaurant where she was dining with her family. “They said, ‘Ma’am, we’ve got a report that you were drinking alcohol while breastfeeding.’ I said, ‘OK, I didn’t know that was illegal,’” Adams recounted in an interview with ABC’s 20/20 this week.
It’s not illegal in Arkansas. But when a waitress at the restaurant noticed Adams breastfeeding her infant daughter, and saw what appeared to be several alcoholic beverages on the table, she called the police — who decided to make a “judgment call.” They told Adams to call a family member to take her six-month-old baby home, and then arrested her for endangering the welfare of a child.
Adams told 20/20 that she had two beers over the course of an hour and a half, and that she’s “very cautious” about breastfeeding.
Her story has inspired a host of negative coverage. Several stories have referred to her as a “boozing, breastfeeding mother.” The waitress who called the police on Adams was reportedly later let go, which added fuel to the fire. “Me being a mom, and just seeing something like that and seeing a baby that can’t speak for itself having a parent do something like that is just unacceptable,” the waitress was quoted as saying in Arkansas Matters.
But there actually aren’t any consistent guidelines about whether or not breastfeeding mothers should totally abstain from alcohol. Some doctors say that women who are breastfeeding should never drink. Other pediatricians believe a glass of wine or beer is fine in moderation. The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that the occasional alcoholic beverage is acceptable, but recommends that nursing mothers should wait about two hours before breastfeeding so the alcohol can pass through their system.
“A mother who has a glass of wine with dinner or one beer when she goes out is not an issue or a problem,” Marsha Walker, a member of the board of directors for the Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition, told ABC News in 2009, following a similar incident of a breastfeeding mother getting arrested for drinking alcohol. “The problem is if she is an alcoholic, if she’s unable to drive or care for a baby.”
During pregnancy, expectant mothers are certainly inundated with messages about abstaining from alcohol, although a growing body of new research suggests that moderate drinking may not have any effect on fetuses’ development in the womb. Of course, since heavy drinking during pregnancy can lead to a host of public health consequences, the issue remains fairly contentious. The issue of drinking while breastfeeding is even less clear-cut.
Aside from the controversy about alcohol and breastfeeding specifically, Adams’ arrest fits into a larger trend of criminalizing mothers’ actions in the name of public health. Under fetal harm laws, pregnant and breastfeeding women face additional scrutiny for any decisions they make that may be deemed to negatively impact their children. National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) has documented hundreds of cases in which women have been put in jail, or stripped of custody of their children, for this reason.
While it’s obviously important to safeguard children’s health, in many instances, this criminal justice approach ends up targeting low-income women and communities of color for no good reason. For instance, prosecutors have been jailing women for using drugs while pregnant since the crack boom of the 1980s, largely to prove they’re tough on drugs — even though there’s not necessarily any scientific evidence that cocaine harms fetuses in the first place. The vast majority of the cases that NAPW has logged target African American mothers.
This is hardly the only example of a new mother facing criminal consequences for this type of negligence. In 2012, a breastfeeding mother from South Carolina was charged with homicide after her infant daughter passed away and traces of morphine were found in her bloodstream. And a similar situation unfolded in California in 2011, after a breastfeeding mother used methamphetamine. In both cases, it’s not totally clear whether harmful levels of the drug were transmitted through breast milk. But as RH Reality Check notes, “Clearly, prosecutors are deciding that women who use drugs are easy targets for public outrage and deserve punishment.”