Tennessee could soon become the first state to outlaw the transmission of a mother’s drug addiction on to her growing fetus, as the state’s government has already shown bipartisan support for the new bill.
If Tennessee’s governor approves the bill, the state will become the first in the country to extend child abuse laws involving illegal drugs to a woman’s pregnancy. While advocates for the decision claim the legislation was designed to promote healthier pregnancies, by dissuading addicted mothers from using drugs, critics of the bill argue it provides unnecessary autonomy to the growing fetus at the direct expense of the mother’s well-being. Rather than seek help for their addictions, critics believe mothers will begin fearing their doctors under the threat of arrest.
“Nothing … shall preclude prosecution of a woman for an assaultive offense for the illegal use of a narcotic drug while pregnant, if her child is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug,” the bill states.
This language leaves ample room for a slippery slope, argues Farah Diaz-Tello, a lawyer with the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. “The law is so broad that it could lead to charges against a woman who drives recklessly, gets in an accident, and then loses pregnancy,” Diaz-Tello told The Daily Beast. “It could also be used against women who try to self-induce abortions.” Under the new bill, women who have miscarriages, still births, and infants born with birth defects could face up to 15 years in prison.
There is one caveat to the rule: Women who are seeking treatment for their addictions, but still miscarriage or give birth to an infant dependent on the drugs, cannot be prosecuted. This is an extension of last year’s Safe Harbor Act, which guaranteed pregnant women protection if they came forward and entered drug treatment rehabilitation programs, and was intended to reduce the rise of newborn withdrawal, also known as neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS).
But even this caveat has its limitations, and the most critical limitation is a hallmark of this flavor of law. Basically, the mothers who are most likely to suffer from drug addictions live in the poorest areas of a given region. But these pockets of poverty are the least likely to have the resources available to treat these addictions. So mothers are left with a deadly paradox: Those that live in wealthier areas don’t need the resources available to them, while the women who need them the most can’t get access.
Interestingly, the bill vaporizes any pro-life/pro-choice debacle, as many of the naysayers to the legislation were actually republicans. Pro-lifers argue the bill puts the fetus in harm’s way, because the mother now fears her arrest. Meanwhile, the pro-choice crowd opposes it because it puts the mother in danger without offering a workable solution to a problem.
Terri Weaver, however, who sponsored the bill in the House, believes the bill does offer a solution. It just so happens to be punitive. “Tennessee has become one of the top states for babies born addicted,” she said. “This law brings treatment to the worst of the worst.”
Doctors have a different take. NAS is easily treated and in no way permanent. And addictions, despite the conventional wisdom, aren’t “moral failings,” as Dr. Kathy Hartke of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists tells The Daily Beast. Addictions are behavioral disorders that find roots in genetics, not so unlike high cholesterol or poor vision.
A more fitting solution, experts say, is to make birth control, pregnancy counseling, and addiction rehabilitation services more readily available to poorer women. Without access to preventative sources and information, the door is left open for grave interpretations of an unclear law.