Tennessee Lawmakers Should Stop Prosecutions of Pregnant Women

Tennessee lawmakers have the chance to do the right thing and let a terrible law expire. The law, which is set to sunset in July, criminalizes drug use during pregnancy. Yet, despite the fact that the law has done nothing to promote pubic health or enable pregnant women to get treatment, some lawmakers think this terrible policy should be extended [PDF].
photo by Phillip Dodds

Making a Dreadful Situation Worse

The current law allows women to be jailed for up to 15 years if their newborn tests positive for narcotic drugs. These types of laws that criminalize drug use by pregnant women force women to choose between getting medical treatment and risk going to jail or avoiding medical providers and risk their health. In fact, the law has been shown to have a harmful effect on Tennessee women and their families [PDF].  Yet, some have decided to double down on this dangerous policy rather than simply letting the law expire.

In theory, women can avoid jail by completing a drug treatment program. But only 11 of the 39 licensed residential detox programs in Tennessee accept pregnant women and waiting lists for care can exceed 1,000 people at any given time. And there are only 12 licensed methadone centers in Tennessee none which accept TennCare or other health insurance.

Pregnant women unable to get treatment are afraid to seek care for fear of being arrested. One woman who had used narcotics during her pregnancy gave birth in her car rather than seek medical treatment because she feared that she would be arrested. That’s why major medical organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology oppose these laws and instead advocate for treating drug addiction as a public health, not criminal, issue.

Let the Law Expire

Over thirty-five national, state, and local organizations joined together  to oppose the extension of this terrible law. Rather than spending tax dollars putting mothers through the costly criminal justice system, Tennessee lawmakers should expand access to evidence based treatment programs in Tennessee that provide care for pregnant women. Do the right thing Tennessee—let this terrible law expire.