New TN Law Puts Addicted Moms in Legal Peril
Let's start in Tennessee, where Republican Governor Bill Haslam has signed into law a controversial bill that gives prosecutors the option of pursuing jail time for mothers who give birth to babies while withdrawing from drugs ingested during pregnancy.
The bill has drawn strong criticism from several groups including Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and a U.S. drug official, Michael Botticelli, acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. A petition with more than 10,000 signatures did not sway Haslam, who waited until the last day available to sign the bill into law.
At issue is the desire to drive down the number of babies born in Tennessee with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), essentially drug withdrawal as a result of the mother using drugs during pregnancy. In 2013, the first year the state's health departments began requiring hospitals to report of cases of NAS, there were 921 cases of NAS. So far in 2014, there have been 253.
Opponents fear the law will prevent drug-addicted mothers from seeking treatment while advocates cite the need for a tougher alternative. Previously, mothers could be charged with a misdemeanor, which triggered treatment through the state's drug courts.
The new law, which goes into effect July 1, allows mothers who give birth to babies with NAS to be prosecuted for homicide if the baby dies because of the drugs taken during pregnancy, or for assault if a baby is born addicted or is harmed. Mothers who get into treatment can avoid criminal charges.
In a statement, Governor Haslam emphasized the bill was aimed at ultimately getting mothers into treatment programs. The state's health commissioner, John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH wants physicians to be more cautious of the medications prescribed to pregnant women. According to 2013 state health data, in 63% of NAS cases, at least one of the medications was prescribed by a healthcare provider.