Tennessee Bill Would Prosecute Drug-Abusing Pregnant Women

LONDON - JULY 18: In this photo illustration a pregnant woman is seen holding a cigarette on July 18, 2005, London, England. Research has shown that smoking during pregnancy damages a baby's airways before the child is born. (Photo illustration by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
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DR. SUSAN BERRY

Two Tennessee state lawmakers have filed a bill that would seek to prosecute pregnant women who are abusing narcotic drugs and whose babies are born harmed or addicted to drugs.

Last week, Republicans state Rep. Terry Lynn Weaver and state Sen. Janice Bowling filed HB1168/SB0659, reports WZTV News. The measure would authorize a woman to be prosecuted for assault based on her abuse of narcotic drugs if her child is born harmed or addicted to drugs as a result of her drug use.

The bill provides an incentive for women who enroll in an addiction rehabilitation program while pregnant. Those who successfully complete the program can assist themselves in their defense.

News Channel 5 observed a similar law – called the Fetal Assault Law – was enacted in Tennessee in 2014, but the legislation contained a sunset clause that led to its expiration in 2016.

“The reason why I’m bringing it back, we have an uptick in babies born addicted, our grandchildren our now being born addicted, it’s all about the babies and something needs to be done to protect these babies,” Weaver said.

The ACLU of Tennessee condemned the law in 2014, stating it raised “serious constitutional concerns regarding equal treatment under the law,” reported ABC News.

“This dangerous law unconstitutionally singles out new mothers struggling with addiction for criminal assault charges,” Thomas Castelli, legal director of the ACLU Tennessee, said in a statement. “By focusing on punishing women rather than promoting healthy pregnancies, the state is only deterring women struggling with alcohol or drug dependency from seeking the pre-natal care they need.”

Similarly, Michael Botticelli, a former Obama administration drug policy czar, criticized the law at the time for seeking to “criminalize” addiction.

“What’s important is that we create environments where we’re really diminishing the stigma and the barriers, particularly for pregnant women, who often have a lot of shame and guilt about their substance abuse disorders,” Botticelli said, according to the Nashville Tennessean.

However, Mathilde Mellon, founder of the Pregnancy Help Center, said the current bill encourages drug-abusing women to obtain treatment.

“Treatment is always the best option, particularly, when it comes to pregnant women, and pushing women towards abortion because she’s afraid of DCS [Department of Children’s Services] is not the way we want to go,” she said, according to News Channel 5.

The bill, if passed, would take effect on July 1, 2019.

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