Earlier this month, it was revealed that the state of Tennessee was looking to pass a bill that would target pregnant drug abusers. Tuesday, Tennessee Governor, Bill Haslam signed that very bill, which will criminalize expectant mothers who struggle with drug dependency.
Haslam was met with strong opposition from reproductive rights advocates who asked him to veto the bill saying that it would only serve to discourage pregnant women who were addicted to drugs from seeking a means of treatment. In addition, they complained saying the bill was written in such a broad way that the state could bring criminal charges against any mother regardless of whether or not she was addicted to drugs if her pregnancy had a poor outcome.
Michael Botticelli, acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy also posed opposition to the new bill saying that addiction should be treated as a disease and not a crime. He said it was important to create environments where stigmas and barriers were diminished especially for pregnant women who already are ashamed of the fact that they abuse drugs.
Boticelli continued by saying that the Obama administration was trying to reframe the drug policy where addiction would be treated as a public health-related issue instead of as a crime. He went on to say that, it was important, on a national level, that addiction should not be criminalized.
Members of National Advocates for Pregnant Women agreed with Boticelli. They said they were pleased that he was speaking out to discourage this type of treatment of women during pregnancy and the fact that he was discouraging the “expansion of the war on drugs.”
ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project staff attorney, Alexa Kolbi-Molinas said that by Governor Haslam signing the pregnancy bill to criminalize expectant mothers for drug abuse, he “has made it a crime” for any woman to carry a pregnancy to term who is struggling with substance abuse or addiction. She added by saying she was concerned that this law would force women “into the shadows” who desperately need healthcare. “Pregnant women with addictions need access to health care, not jail time,” Kolbi-Molinas said.
Sources say this bill will most likely affect African-Americans the most because they are more likely to be singled out and reported for their drug abuse. However, it is important to note that substance abuse among African-American women and Caucasian women are the same in the state of Tennessee.
Just two years ago, Tennessee passed the Safe Harbor Act, which done away with criminalization policies geared toward pregnant women and instead gave them an incentive to get into a treatment program because it guaranteed them that they would not lose custody of their children as long as they were seeking treatment and getting help. However, now, with Governor Haslam’s signing of the bill to criminalize expectant mothers, Tennessee prosecutors can again begin bringing criminal charges and penalties against pregnant women who are addicted to drugs. If a pregnant woman is found guilty under the new bill, she could be sentenced to as much as 15 years in prison for aggravated assault.
By Donna W. Martin