New Tennessee Law Prosecutes Drug-Taking Pregnant Women, And Makes Absolutely Zero Sense
He had ten days to hear the many, many reasons not to sign SB1391, but on Tuesday, Gov. Bill Haslam went ahead and did it anyway. Now, Tennessee can criminally charge pregnant women who take drugs during their pregnancy, even though all evidence suggests this could end up with more babies being born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome — and even though, just two years ago, the state had barred bringing criminal charges against pregnant mothers for using drugs.
The new law is effectively a 360-degree shift, and marks it the first time the U.S. has legalized the arrest (and imprisonment) of mothers who use drugs while they're pregnant. As of July 1, a pregnant woman can be charged if she takes drugs while pregnant, and if the baby is in any way affected by the taking of said drugs."The intent of this bill is to give law enforcement and district attorneys a tool to address illicit drug use among pregnant women through treatment programs," Haslam wrote in a statement. "I understand the concerns about this bill, and I will be monitoring the impact of the law through regular updates with the court system and health professionals."
These 'concerns' are pretty serious. One is within a deceptively positive caveat in the legislation — women who agree to drug-rehabilitation treatment can avoid being charged. But not only would these mothers have to have the funds to check into these programs (which pregnant women from lower-income backgrounds would struggle to find), only a couple of Tennessee's treatment centers allow older kids to be with their mothers while they get treated (narrowing the spectrum for whom rehab is an option even more). Worse? As Salon reports, only 19 of the total 177 facilities even have addiction care especially for pregnant women.
“Today, the Tennessee governor has made it a crime to carry a pregnancy to term if you struggle with addiction or substance abuse,” Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, a staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, told ThinkProgress. “This deeply misguided law will force those women who need health care the most into the shadows. Pregnant women with addictions need better access to health care, not jail time.”
Even disregarding the availability of treatment centers, the law is actually fundamentally flawed in another way: it doesn't allow pregnant mothers to have the recommended treatment for pregnant addicts, namely maintenance treatments. Withdrawal, by contrast, can actually harm the pregnancy. And as Bustle previously reported:
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.
The New York Times also notes a "little-noticed provision" in the legislation, which could "open the door to more prosecutions of pregnant women for any illegal act that has an impact on pregnancy, like reckless driving that causes a car accident." The only upside to this horrifying mess of a legislation? It's also got a rare "sunset" provision, meaning that the measure will be revisited in 2016. Until then — mothers of Tennessee, take care.