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Decision Looms on Bill Targeting Pregnant Drug Users

PHOTO: Gov. Bill Haslam has until Tuesday to decide whether to sign legislation that allows a pregnant woman to be charged with a crime for drug use if it harms her baby. Photo credit: Daniel Lobo/Flickr
PHOTO: Gov. Bill Haslam has until Tuesday to decide whether to sign legislation that allows a pregnant woman to be charged with a crime for drug use if it harms her baby. Photo credit: Daniel Lobo/Flickr
April 28, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Time is running out for Gov. Bill Haslam to make his decision on a bill that would allow Tennessee women to be charged with a crime for drug use during pregnancy if it harms the baby. It is an idea that has raised concern among medical professionals, including physician Pamela Gonzalez, who serves on the committee on substance abuse for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Gonzalez said she fears that the threat of criminal charges would drive women away from getting treatment and prenatal care.

"The most important thing for any woman, whether she's got a substance abuse problem or not, is for that woman to present for prenatal care," Gonzalez said. "One of the biggest damaging things that is a potential outcome of having legislation like this, is going back to a place where women go 'underground.'"

Supporters of the bill said it is needed to address the growing number of babies born addicted to drugs in Tennessee, and pointed out that it allows for women to avoid prosecution by seeking treatment.

Another concern is that the criminalization could have a disproportionate impact on the state's most vulnerable women, according to Cherisse Scott, CEO, SisterReach of Memphis.

"What we recognize is that low-income women, especially those from communities of color, really have the fewest resources to navigate the courts," Scott said. "So, what we understand with this legislation is that families with the least amount of support are going to be torn apart, not strengthened."

Scott said addiction is a medical issue and that women struggling with substance abuse need support in seeking treatment, rather than punishment. That's why she's among those calling for a veto.

Also urging Haslam to reject the legislation is the ACLU of Tennessee, said Executive Director Hedy Weinberg.

"This legislation is very problematic, not only because it raises serious Constitutional concerns about equal treatment under the law, but also because it jeopardizes the health and well-being of women in Tennessee," Weinberg warned.

The focus should instead be on increasing the options for pregnant women to get help when they are struggling with substance abuse issues, Weinberg added. Currently, only two out of the nearly 180 addiction treatment facilities statewide provide prenatal care onsite.

The governor has until Tuesday to decide whether to veto the bill, sign it or let it become law without his signature.

Details of the bill are available at http://1.usa.gov. Tennessee statistics on "Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome" are at http://health.state.tn.us/.

John Michaelson, Public News Service - TN