April 15, 2014 — Medical and women's rights groups are urging Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) to veto legislation (SB 1391) that would allow the state to file criminal charges against women suspected of misusing drugs during pregnancy, the New York Times reports.
Bipartisan majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature approved the bill last week. According to the Times, if Haslam does not sign or veto the bill within 10 days of receiving it, it automatically becomes law.
Tennessee and 37 other states have enacted "fetal protection" laws, which were originally intended to better protect pregnant women from violent crime and increase penalties on perpetrators, the Times reports. However, a few years ago, Tennessee started to use the law to prosecute women who gave birth to infants who tested positive for illegal drugs, according to Farah Diaz-Tello, a staff lawyer for National Advocates for Pregnant Women.
In 2012, the state enacted a law that barred criminal charges from being filed against the pregnant women themselves under the fetal protection law, and in 2013, it amended a child welfare law to make it more difficult to remove infants born with traces of illegal drugs from their mothers.
The latest legislation would allow criminal charges to be brought against women who misuse drugs during their pregnancy. The measure includes a provision that allows a defense against conviction if a woman is "actively enrolled in an addiction recovery program before the child is born, remained in the program after delivery, and successfully completed the program."
Concerns About Criminalization
Specialists in obstetrics and illegal drug use have joined with women's rights groups in objecting to the legislation. Medical specialists argue that the purported effects of drug use on fetuses have been exaggerated and that any withdrawal symptoms that do occur can be resolved without long-term consequences.
In addition, legal specialists argue that the bill could potentially allow the prosecution of pregnant women for any illegal act that could affect their pregnancies, such as reckless driving. They also argue that the defense provision leaves some women vulnerable for prosecution if they are in treatment programs that use buprenorphine or methadone, which are used indefinitely.
Memphis District Attorney Amy Weirich, a supporter of the bill, said, "The focus of the legislation is not to punish these mothers," but instead "to get them help for their drug addiction, using the drug courts."
However, Cherisse Scott, CEO of SisterReach, a reproductive-rights group that opposes the bill, said, "It's poor women, black and brown women, rural women who will be criminalized."
Meanwhile, Diaz-Tello said, Tennessee is "going from a state with some of the best practices [for pregnant women who misuse drugs] to one of the worst" (Eckholm, New York Times, 4/14).