On Wednesday, the Tennessee legislature decided not to uphold a law that penalized mothers of babies who test positive for drugs. The law, which was given a two-year trial period in 2014, failed when it received insufficient votes in the Criminal Justice subcommittee.
The law was meant to discourage pregnant women from using drugs in an effort to prevent something called neonatal abstinence syndrome, which is a collection of health problems experienced by infants exposed to narcotics while in the womb. Ultimately, the law ended up having the opposite effect—many women were discouraged from seeking prenatal care, and several sought abortions.
A related bill was introduced on Wednesday into the U.S. House of Representatives in response to a December Reuters investigation which identified 110 cases of babies and toddlers who were exposed to opioids in the womb and later died.
“Being born drug-dependent didn’t kill these children,” Reuters reported. “Each recovered enough to be discharged from the hospital. What sealed their fates was being sent home to families ill-equipped to care for them.”
The issue, the investigation found, was that thousands of families do not receive social supports they are entitled to by a 2003 law, according to the New York Times. That’s why this new bill would require states to report the number of drug-dependent babies born each year, the number for whom “plans of safe care” are developed, and to help educate social workers about best practices when helping these babies.
“[The Tennessee law] would have extended a dangerous and harmful law that has jailed pregnant women and new mothers who have used drugs, instead of working to ensure that they have access to effective treatment options,” said Allison Glass, state director of Health and Free TN.
“Health and drug treatment professionals agree that treatment for addiction is critical, but they also agree that bills that focus on punitive measures in order to coerce people into getting treatment simply are not effective. In fact, this law has harmed the very people it was supposed to help.”
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