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Tenn. Bill Criminalizing Drug Use During Pregnancy Signed into Law

Tenn. Bill Criminalizing Drug Use During Pregnancy Signed into Law

April 30, 2014 — Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) on Tuesday signed into law a bill (SB 1391) that will allow the state to prosecute women suspected of using illicit drugs while pregnant, the Tennessean reports. The bill takes effect on July 1 (Gonzalez, Tennessean, 4/29).

The legislation permits criminal charges in such cases and includes a provision that allows 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" (Women's Health Policy Report, 4/21).

The law also includes a sunset provision that requires lawmakers to reassess the legislation in 2016.

Haslam's Decision

Haslam said in a statement that the measure is designed "to give law enforcement and district attorneys a tool to address illicit drug use among pregnant women through treatment programs," adding that he hopes physicians will encourage women to enter treatment programs in order to avoid prosecution.

In addition, Haslam said that he "understand[s] the concerns about this bill" and will monitor "the impact of the law through regular updates with the court system and health professionals" (Tennessean, 4/29). He said that the sunset provision gives state officials time to collect and consider data on women and infants affected by the measure.

Haslam also noted that he signed the measure only after conducting "extensive conversations with experts including substance abuse, mental health, health and law enforcement officials" (AP/Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 4/29).

Objections to New Law

Five national medical groups and Tennessee-based physicians have objected to the measure, citing concerns that it could deter women from seeking prenatal care and that it reverses prior state legislation designed to help women keep custody of infants and find treatment (Tennessean, 4/29).

Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Freedom Project, said Tuesday that Haslam "has made it a crime to carry a pregnancy to term if you struggle with addiction or substance abuse." Kolbi-Molinas said, "This deeply misguided law will force those women who need health care the most into the shadows," adding, "Pregnant women with addictions need better access to health care, not jail time" (AP/Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 4/29).

Opinion Piece: Law 'Further Erodes Rights of Women'

SB 1391 "is a continuation of the flawed logic that social problems can be solved by using prenatal care as a means of controlling the bodies and behavior of pregnant women," Marika Seigel, an author and associate professor of rhetoric and technical communication at Michigan Technological University, writes in an opinion-piece for Al Jazeera America.

The law "attempts to address poverty and addiction by punishing pregnant women and pitting the rights of the mother against the rights of her unborn child," Seigel writes.

Seigel argues that "if we really want to help addicted pregnant women, then we need to provide them with access to better health and prenatal care," such as through "women-centered models of prenatal care ... that treat the mother and fetus as an inseparable unit" and "social programs that directly address poverty and provide those with limited means with better access to health care, drug treatment programs and child care services." The new law "makes enormous strides in further eroding the rights of women," Seigel concludes (Seigel, Al Jazeera America, 4/30).