A new bill just passed by Tennessee's state legislature would allow women to be charged with assault or homicide if they have a pregnancy complication after using illegal narcotics. Troublingly, the legislation's language is so broad that advocates fear it may be used to prosecute pregnant women for non-drug-related offenses; furthermore, experts argue that it's far too punitive to be effective.
The bill — which has been passed in both the state Senate and House and needs only the governor's signature to go into effect — states that "a mother can be prosecuted for an assaultive offense or homicide" if her child is "born addicted, is harmed, or dies" due to her illegal drug use during pregnancy. But, as Farah Diaz-Tello of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women told RH Reality Check, the law "in no way limits the prosecution to misdemeanor assault, nor does it limit the prosecution to women who are illegally taking narcotics." And, because "criminal investigation is the only way to rule out an unlawful act," any woman who miscarries or gives birth to a baby with health issues could be subject to one.
Slightly under a year ago, the same legislature passed the Safe Harbor Act, which was meant to give pregnant abusers of prescription drugs access to prenatal care and rehabilitation without endangering their parental rights. Prosecutors and law enforcement insisted that this didn't go far enough, even though medical experts have cautioned against "any kind of punitive approach," stating that it "drives women underground" and "doesn't encourage them to get treatment." For this reason, the American College of Obstetricians Gynecologists (ACOG) declares the criminalization of substance abuse during pregnancy "contrary to the welfare of the mother and fetus." BUT OH WELL, WHO CARES WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY? Under the new law, a mother charged with aggravated assault for drug use during pregnancy could face up to 15 years in prison.
In addition, the bill would only prosecute women who use illegal narcotics during pregnancy — which doesn't make much sense, because 60 percent of babies who experience drug withdrawal after birth develop the condition as a result of their mother's prescription medication use. As Lauren Rankin notes at Cosmopolitan, this will probably result in law enforcement "only criminalizing certain kinds of drug users." Farah Diaz-Tello told her that it's likely the law will be used to reinforce and replicate systemic racism:
"I can almost guarantee that this [law] will be used disproportionately against African-American women because, even though we know that fewer African-American women than white women use drugs, they are more likely to be blamed for the outcomes of their pregnancies."
Administering draconian punishments to drug-addicted pregnant women simply isn't an effective solution (especially when it can cause harm in so many other ways). It's far more beneficial to offer them help and rehabilitation instead.
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