Some urging Haslam to veto bill on prosecution of pregnant women for drug abuse

Women’s rights and medical groups have called on Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee to veto legislation that would allow criminal assault charges to be filed against women who use illegal drugs during pregnancy, according to a New York Times piece.

Critics say the measure will harm babies because pregnant women will be afraid to seek medical care.

At a time of rising concern about narcotics addiction, the bill was passed last week by bipartisan majorities in both houses of the Tennessee legislature. (Note: It’s SB1391; post on its passage is HERE.)

…While states have used criminal laws and child-welfare rules to punish mothers who use drugs, the Tennessee bill would be the first of its kind to detail criminal charges when a fetus or newborn is deemed to be harmed by illegal narcotics.

But specialists in obstetric medicine and drug addiction have joined with women’s rights groups to call for the veto. Any risks of narcotics to newborns have been exaggerated, according to medical authorities who say that withdrawal symptoms, if they occur, can be treated with no long-term effects.

For years, conflicts have swirled in many states over the legal rights of pregnant women and the extent to which the authorities can act to protect fetuses. Tennessee has followed an unusual course, first softening its approach and now aiming to restore criminal penalties.

It is one of 38 states with fetal protection laws, originally intended to protect pregnant women from violent crime and bolster the penalties on attackers. A couple of years ago, Tennessee prosecutors began using the law to charge women who gave birth to babies who tested positive for illegal drugs, said Farah Diaz-Tello, a staff lawyer for National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a rights group based in New York.

Legislation passed in 2012, however, barred the filing of criminal charges under the fetal protection law against pregnant women themselves.

Then last year, in an effort to encourage women to enter drug treatment, the state amended its child welfare law, making it harder to remove infants born with traces of illegal drugs from their mothers. But there has been little time to see the effect of these changes.

“Now we’re seeing the General Assembly take two big steps back,” Ms. Diaz-Tello said. “It’s going from a state with some of the best practices to one of the worst.”
In a little-noticed provision, legal specialists said, the new bill 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 bill does offer a defense against conviction if “the woman actively enrolled in an addiction recovery program before the child is born, remained in the program after delivery, and successfully completed the program.”