Pressure Mounts for Tenn. Gov. To Veto Bill on Drug Use During Pregnancy

April 21, 2014 — Reproductive-rights and women's rights groups continue to pressure Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) to veto legislation (SB 1391) that would allow the state to prosecute women who use illicit drugs during their pregnancies, CNN reports (Presto/Ford, CNN, 4/17).

The legislation would permit 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."

Bipartisan majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature approved the bill earlier this month. If Haslam does not sign or veto the bill within 10 days of receiving it, it automatically becomes law (Women's Health Policy Report, 4/15).

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, in 2013, there were about 900 infants in the state who were born with withdrawal symptoms. The department also reported a tenfold increase in the number of infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome over the last 10 years.

Groups' Comments

Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, in a letter to Haslam last week said that "SB 1391 is constitutionally unsound and enacting this law would threaten the health and well-being of Tennessee women and their families."

Weinberg explained that while ACLU of Tennessee also wants "to promote healthy pregnancies by providing pregnant women struggling with a drug or alcohol dependency" with opportunities to receive treatment, "policies that threaten women with criminal prosecution and the loss of their children drive women away from health care and discourage them from seeking invaluable prenatal and pregnancy-related care."

Meanwhile, Jeff Teague, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee, said that the bill's stipulation that a woman can use participation in treatment as a defense is inadequate.

"One of our primary concerns is making sure women have healthy pregnancies and then healthy children, and the big concern here is that this is going to frighten women away from the treatment they need for a healthy pregnancy, as well as treatment for any substance abuse issues that they have," he said, adding that there is particular concern about women in rural areas because there are "not enough facilities that have the ability to provide addiction counseling for pregnant women."

Reaction From Governor's Office

Haslam spokesperson Laura Herzog declined to say whether the governor would sign the bill. However, Herzog highlighted several provisions of the bill, including the defense for women in treatment, how charges would only be filed in the case of illegal drug use and how the charges would be limited to misdemeanors (CNN, 4/17).