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Tennessee adopts legislation to criminally prosecute drug-addicted pregnant women

Published time: April 10, 2014 15:46
Reuters / Chaiwat Subprasom

Reuters / Chaiwat Subprasom

A new bill just passed by Tennessee’s state legislature would allow law enforcement to bring criminal charges against pregnant women if their drug addiction causes their children to be born with a dependency.

According to the Tennessean, a similar proposal was defeated last year, but now only needs the governor’s signature to go into effect. If the bill becomes law, its text states, “a mother can be prosecuted for an assaultive offense or homicide if she illegally takes a narcotic drug while pregnant and the child is born addicted, is harmed, or dies because of the drug.”

Under the new bill, women would be allowed to avoid charges if they seek the appropriate treatment needed to help deal with their addictions.

"This piece of legislation is an intervention," said the bill’s author, Republican Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, according to the Wire. "Do you want help for yourself, and do you want help for the baby who is inside your womb, or not?"

"It would just seem to me that any society that puts value on life, that these defenseless children deserve some protection," she added to local NBC affiliate WBIR.

While some have found positive merits with the bill’s intention, the proposal has drawn the criticism of local health groups as well as the majority of the United States’ major medical groups, who argue it have the opposite effect – that it will actively keep women from getting help.

“These women need supportive program,” Allison Glass of Healthy and Free Tennessee said to the Memphis Flyer. “Punitive measures will only make women not seek prenatal care. They will lie to their doctors [about their drug use], and it could lead to unwanted abortions by women who are afraid of getting prosecuted and convicted.”

As reported by Salon, this sentiment was echoed by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and others.

“Pregnant women will be likely to avoid seeking prenatal or open medical care for fear that their physician’s knowledge of substance abuse or other potentially harmful behavior could result in a jail sentence rather than proper medical treatment,” the AMA said in a statement.

Interestingly, Tennessee had a similar law on the books that was lifted about two years ago. In its place the state instituted a law called the Safe Harbor Act, which urged women to get treatment by protecting their custody rights and also assuring them of immediate accommodation. This law has only been active for about a year, and while the rate of drug-addicted births continues to rise, supports say not enough time has passed to judge its effectiveness.

According to the Wire, 17 states classify drug use by pregnant women to be child abuse, with rulings that have been upheld in state Supreme Courts in South Carolina and Alabama.