Tennessee could become the first state to authorize the filing of assault charges against a mother if it is determined that she has harmed her fetus or newborn with illegal narcotics. The bill which would criminalize women who used drugs illegally during pregnancy is waiting for the governor of Tennessee to either approve or veto it. It passed the House without problems, and passed the Tennessee Senate last week with bipartisan support.
While the bill may be receiving bipartisan support in legislation, there are definite critics of the bill who are hoping that the Republican governor, Bill Haslam, will veto it. Governor Haslam has 10 days to approve or veto the bill, or it will automatically become law. 30 members of the house voted against the bill; eight of the 30 were Republicans. In the Senate there were seven members who voted against the bill, all seven were Republicans. Perhaps the reason behind this is that individuals who are pro-life, which Republicans often are, worry this bill may harm babies.
Critics feel that the bill may discourage the mother from seeking proper prenatal care if she fears her arrest. The bill would mean that any woman who gives birth to an infant who is born with birth defects from illegal drug use could face up to 15 years in prison. Along with women who give birth to these infants, women who miscarry or experience still births because of drug use will also potentially be charged with assault.
Women who come forward and seek treatment or participate in a rehabilitation program for drug abuse cannot be charged under this new law. In Tennessee, the highest rate of drug use during pregnancy occurs in poorer rural areas, which makes some feel that this bill is targeting those individuals to be criminalized. Critics say that these women are more likely to use drugs, and because of their economic situation and rural location, they do not have access to the resources needed to overcome their addictions.
Critics of the bill who are members of the medical community state this bill has the potential to do more harm than good. Medical authorities have stated that the effects of narcotic use during pregnancy have been exaggerated. Dr. Kathy Hartke, of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, says that the effects of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) are easily treated, and have no long-term effects. Hartke went on to express her concern that if this bill passes, it may cause some pregnant women to avoid getting the medical care they need during pregnancy for fear of arrest. This can cause harm to the fetus.
State representative Terri Weaver, who sponsored the bill in the house discussed that the unborn baby has no choice but to take whatever substance the mother ingests. Weaver stated, “It’s heartbreaking if you’re a police officer, and you see a woman is seven or eight months pregnant and shooting heroin.”
Farah Diaz-Tello, who is a lawyer with the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, explained that it can be very difficult to prove that a specific substance caused an outcome. Diaz-Tello went on to explain how difficult it will be for women in rural areas to get the help they will need in order to avoid criminal charges. Diaz-Tello stated, “Unfortunately, we’re operating in a society where a person’s socioeconomic status is going to determine their justice.”
Weaver states that this law will bring justice to those who deserve it, but others are not so sure. Pro-lifers say that the new bill puts the fetus at risk, and those who are pro-choice say that it puts mothers at risk. Weaver states that this bill which will criminalize women who use drugs during pregnancy is a solution for Tennessee, which has become a top state for babies born with addictions.
By Ashley Campbell