Tennessee Could Soon Prosecute Moms Who Take Drugs During Pregnancy, But The Bill's Logic Is Flawed

A few days ago, Tennessee's legislature passed a bill that would allow police to criminally prosecute mothers who take drugs during pregnancy that harm their babies. Last Wednesday, April 9, the House bill passed in the House by 64-30, and a few days ago, a companion bill also passed in the state Senate. Now, all the bill needs is a signature from Tennessee's governor.

“This law brings treatment to the worst of the worst,” said state representative Terri Weaver when presenting the bill (which she sponsored in the House). “It’s heartbreaking if you’re a police officer, and you see a woman is seven or eight months pregnant and shooting heroin. There is an individual inside that belly that has no choice but to take whatever goes into it.”

The exact language of the bill would allow a pregnant mother to be charged with "assaultive offense or homicide" if 1. she takes drugs while she is pregnant and 2. the baby is "born addicted, is harmed, or dies because of the drug." At first, the language might seem reasonable — after all, it only targets mothers who are drug addicts only if their babies are harmed from their dependency. Additionally, the bill states that drug-dependent mothers wouldn't be charged if they entered a drug rehabilitation program.

With that said, it's important to point out that the mothers have to be able to afford a drug rehabilitation program or be located near one to avoid the charges, which means that the bill ends up affecting poor, drug-dependent mothers from rural areas the hardest.

The bill was apparently introduced as an effort to stymie the number of children born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. Weaver herself said that babies afflicted with NAS "look like Gerber babies but their whole mechanics are twisted, and they’ll never be the same."

This description appears to be medically false, since there are many "excellent treatments" for NAS, as Dr. Kathy Hartke of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists told The Daily Beast. The American Medical Association has also released a statement expressing concerns that the law could drive pregnant women to avoid seeking prenatal care in case their physicians could turn them in for putting their child at risk — and by avoiding the jail sentence, the babies will not receive the proper care they need.

Even more importantly, the bill focuses solely on illegal drugs — when, in fact, 60 percent of babies with NAS had mothers who took legally prescribed drugs, according to the Tennessee Department of Health commissioner Dr. John Dreyzehner. And it's impossible to absolutely determine whether a mother's illegal drug habits caused health problems in a baby.

In response to the controversy over this bill, Melissa Harris-Perry has written an open letter on MSNBC to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, stating that criminal prosecution shouldn't be a substitute for protection. Here's an excerpt:

So, Governor, any government intervention to address drug dependency among pregnant women and their children must treat that addiction like what it is–a disease. And helping mothers to battle their disease requires a treatment-based approach that must first do no harm by ensuring they are not deterred from prenatal care that could reduce the effects of addiction on their babies.

For now, we'll just have to wait and see what Haslam does with the bill when it lands on his desk.