Bill to allow prosecution of pregnant women for assault on fetus goes to governor

The House gave final approval Wednesday to legislation that would authorize prosecution of women using illegal drugs while pregnant.

The bill, subject to considerable debate and revision in the legislative process, was approved 64-30 by the House. It was approved by the Senate 26-7 last week and now goes to the governor for his expected signature.

In its final version, the bill (SB1391) would allow prosecution of drug-abusing pregnant women only on misdemeanor assault charges. Previous versions would have authorized felony charges. A woman who enrolls in a rehabilitation program and completes it could avoid prosecution.

Sponsor Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, depicted the threat of a misdemeanor prosecution as a “velvet hammer” that would encourage women to get into treatment for the benefit of them selves and their child. Current law, as interpreted by the attorney general in an opinion issued earlier this year, says there can be no prosecution of pregnant women for drug abuse that impacts the child.

“These ladies are the worst of the worst. They are not thinking about per-natal care,” Weaver said. “They are just thinking of getting the money for the next high.”

Critics, on the other hand, say the threat of prosecution is likely to deter women from seeking treatment.

“This is further penalizing women who are already victims,” said Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville.

Rep. Bill Dunn questioned a provision that says the law will be automatically repealed on July 1, 2016. The Knoxville Republican said he has never seen such a provision on a criminal statute and it could open a “Pandora’s box” of problems.

Weaver said it was included during negotiations with interested parties with the aim of gathering data on the effectiveness of the law so that it might be either reconsidered or extended in the future.