Groups call for governor to veto legislation that criminalizes drug use while pregnant

Authored By chloe.morrison

The Tennessee General Assembly has approved legislation that will allow a woman to be prosecuted if she takes illegal narcotics while pregnant, but some groups are calling for Gov. Bill Haslam to veto the measure. 

“Criminalizing pregnancy outcomes scares women away from prenatal care and drug treatment and mandates separating mothers from their babies just when they need each other the most,” Farah Diaz-Tello, staff attorney with National Advocates for Pregnant Women, said.

As of late last week, Senate bill 1391 and its companion legislation, House bill 1295, had been signed by state Senate and House speakers, but had not officially headed to Haslam’s desk for his signature. 

Once the legislation gets to the governor, he has 10 days to either sign or veto the legislation. Click here to read more about the legislation. 

The Senate’s version passed 26-7, and the House version passed 64-30, according to the Tennessee General Assembly’s website

According to the legislation, women who enroll in an addiction recovery program before the child is born, remain in the program after delivery and complete the program can avoid prosecution. 

But a coalition of groups, including Healthy and Free Tennessee, argue that the legislation criminalizes addicts and treats addiction as a moral failing instead of a chronic disorder with biological and genetic components. 

Those in opposition to the legislation said that it creates a burden on taxpayers to jail the women and put the children in foster care and that the measure goes against medical expert opinion. 

Opponents also argue it’s difficult to find drug treatment in the state, adding that of the 177 treatment facilities throughout Tennessee, only 19 list themselves as serving pregnant women.

“Pregnant women seeking help are put into a double bind, subject to arrest but not able to seek treatment,” said Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong, a women of color reproductive collective. 

Spokeswoman for Haslam Laura Herzog said that, as with all legislation, the governor will review the bill in its final form before deciding to approve or veto it. 

“Several administration departments have had concerns and have worked with the sponsor throughout the process,” she said via email. 

The current legislation includes key provisions that aim to mitigate the concerns, such as a two-year sunset to allow for data collection on the bill’s impact. So after two years, the legislation will have to be reapproved after the data collection. 

Herzog also mentioned the fact that women who seek treatment while pregnant and complete it won’t be charged and that charges are limited to misdemeanors. 

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, one of the sponsors of the legislation, said that many of the members of the General Assembly are “pro-life” and believe in protecting the “sanctity of the child.”

“We are interested in protecting that child that has no say-so in this argument at all,” he said. 

Gardenhire said the punishment needs to be strong to deter drug use while pregnant.

He said the legislation encourages women, including minorities and those in poverty, to get help. 

“I can’t believe these groups will support drug addicts,” he said. “This is a very simple bill. It protects that unborn child, and it gives it greater protection.”

Updated @ 12:42 p.m. on 5/1/14 to correct a factual error: The legislation was approved, not signed, at the time of this writing, as originally reported.