Tennessee Passes Legislation to Criminally Prosecute Drug-Addicted Pregnant Women

by Rachel Baker on April 14, 2014

This is pretty significant news. According to the Guttmacher, 17 states can justify arresting a pregnant woman for drug use during pregnancy as child abuse under some type of child welfare statutes. However, NO state has any law like the one that may be signed into law in the state of Tennessee.

Tennessee’s legislature gave its approval a bill that would criminalize some drug-addicted pregnant women, depending on the outcome of their pregnancy. The bill, if signed into law, would allow prosecutors to charge a woman with an “assaultive offense or homicide” if she takes illegal narcotics during her pregnancy, if “the child is born addicted, is harmed, or dies because of the drug.” The bill would reverse the state’s earlier abandonment of the provision in favor of a more compassionate approach to drug addiction and pregnancy. The House approved the bill 64-30 on Wednesday afternoon, a day after it passed the state Senate.

Many critics of the bill, and others like it, argue that the measure would open the door to a broader effort to criminalize women who engage in behaviors that potentially place a fetus at risk — like failing to follow the recommendations of a doctor. Bill sponsor and state Rep. Terri Weaver said in a floor debate on Thursday that her bill was intended to encourage women to “get help” for their addiction. “This piece of legislation is an intervention,” she said, adding “Do you want help for yourself, and do you want help for the baby who is inside your womb, or not?”

Under the amended version of the bill passed today, the threat of charges goes away if a woman voluntarily enters in to an approved treatment program. Although that added provision helped to moderate some state-based opposition to the bill, Salon notes that most major medical associations, including the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, believe that the measure would discourage women with drug addictions from seeking prenatal care (and therefore risk discovery) in the first place.

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