Civil Rights

Under new state law, pregnancy drug use can mean assault charge for mom if baby is harmed


Faced with a growing number of babies born addicted to drugs, Tennessee legislators enacted a new law intended to reduce the problem.

Signed into law by the state governor last week and effective July 1, it allows prosecutors to pursue criminal assault charges and potential jail terms if women bear children who are addicted or suffer other injuries because of the mom’s drug use, the Tennessean reports.

Gov. Bill Haslam says the new law has been carefully considered and is intended to encourage law enforcement officers and prosecutors to push pregnant women with substance abuse issues toward treatment.

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It isn’t clear, however, that treatment is readily available for those who may lack the funds to pay for it or have job or family issues that prevent them from spending time at a treatment facility. And civil rights advocates, medical organizations and local doctors says the new law will likely aggravate the problem by deterring mothers from seeking prenatal care because of the threat of prosecution. Some also express concern about selective enforcement.

“The reality is that many women use alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs while pregnant,” said senior staff Tamar Todd of the Drug Policy Alliance in a written statement provided to the Huffington Post. “But only a few are prosecuted and only for using certain drugs—not those drugs shown to pose greater possible risk to fetal health, such as alcohol, but those we have decided to criminalize largely because of the populations of people who use them.”

Meanwhile, low-income, minority and rural women face the greatest likelihood of prosecution, because they lack access to health care, some argue, including state Sen. Mike Bell.

“I represent a rural district,” he told Salon. “There’s no treatment facility for these women there, and it would be a substantial drive for a woman caught in one of these situations to go to an approved treatment facility. Looking at the map of the state, there are several areas where this is going to be a problem.”

Like the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists opposes such laws, the Washington Post’s GovBeat blog (reg. req.) reports.

“Studies indicate that prenatal care greatly reduces the negative effects of substance abuse during pregnancy, including decreased risks of low birth weight and prematurity,” said the ACOG said in a committee opinion. “Drug enforcement policies that deter women from seeking prenatal care are contrary to the welfare of the mother and fetus.”

Haslam said in a written statement that he understands the concerns about the bill and “will be monitoring the impact of the law through regular updates with the court system and health professionals.”

The law will have to be reconsidered by 2016, when it is due to expire under a sunset provision.

Related coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Pregnant woman confined under fetal protection law challenges its constitutionality”

ABAJournal.com: “Drug-abusing pregnant women may be prosecuted under endangerment law, Ala. Supreme Court says”

ABAJournal.com: “Secret hospital urine test on pregnant woman led to gov’t scrutiny over false positive, suit says”

Telegraph (opinion): ” Should drug-taking pregnant women who harm their babies be jailed?”

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