April 17, 2014 — A bill (SB 1391) recently approved by Tennessee's Legislature would give the state "the dubious distinction of being the first state to specifically authorize the filing of assault charges, carrying up to 15 years in prison, when a fetus or newborn is deemed to be harmed by illegal narcotics," a New York Times editorial states. Gov. Bill Haslam (R) has 10 days after the bill reaches his desk "to sign or veto it before it automatically becomes law," the editorial explains.
The editorial calls the bill "meanspirited and counterproductive," noting that "medical authorities say any risks of narcotics to newborns have been exaggerated and withdrawal symptoms can be effectively treated with no long-term effects." Critics caution that the bill's main effect "would be to harm babies by making pregnant women fear seeking medical care," while potentially leading some women "to have abortions to avoid criminal penalties with long-range consequences, including their ability to earn a living," the editorial states.
"The new bill represents a big step backward" from a 2013 measure that encouraged women who use illicit drugs to enter treatment programs and make it harder to remove their newborns from them, the editorial states.
"Prosecutors should have no role in overseeing prenatal care and this bill does not even try to address some of the most well-documented risks to pregnancy outcomes, starting with poverty, and including cigarettes, alcohol and legally prescribed drugs," the editorial continues. Further, its "[c]areless drafting seems to leave open the possibility of prosecutions for any illegal act that affects a pregnancy, like not using a seatbelt," the editorial states.
The editorial concludes, "As Governor Haslam should see, the measure is about punishing women -- mainly poor minority women -- not getting them into treatment or protecting their babies" (New York Times, 4/16).