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Tennessee’s New Bill Penalizing Pregnant Drug Users is Bad for Everyone

Tennessee’s New Bill Penalizing Pregnant Drug Users is Bad for Everyone

The governor of Tennessee appeared to be vacillating over his support of SB 1391, a new law that would charge women who were found to have used drugs while they were pregnant with “misdemeanor assault,” but in the end Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bill into law, angering women’s rights and civil rights advocates alike.

“Today, the Tennessee governor has made it a crime to carry a pregnancy to term if you struggle with addiction or substance abuse,” said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, in a press release. “This deeply misguided law will force those women who need health care the most into the shadows. Pregnant women with addictions need better access to health care, not jail time.”

Under SB 1391, women or girls who are pregnant and are found to have drugs in their system can now face punishments including jail time, actions the bill supporters have deemed necessary to deter those pregnant people from continuing substance abuse. Opponents, including social workers and medical professionals, worry that the opposite will happen, and that rather than protecting the health of the unborn they will endanger them further as mothers to be avoid prenatal care out of fear of being jailed.

Jail time wouldn’t just affect those who are pregnant, but their families as well, especially if they already have children at home. “Anyone aware of the criminal justice system in our country knows that assault charges can heavily impact the course of a person’s life,” writes Katherine Bisanz and Maggie Rosenbloom, co-founders of Social Workers for Reproductive Justice. “A prison or jail sentence could mean that women will be unable to be present to care for the families they already have or sustain the employment necessary to support a family and get through a treatment program. In a nutshell, Tennessee lawmakers seem to believe that they can ‘keep babies healthy’ by punishing their mothers and don’t seem to grasp how terribly backwards and simply unrealistic this idea is.”

Rosenbloom and Bisanz also worry that as mandatory reporters, social workers will be put in the complicated position of being forced to weigh the needs of their client and client’s family with the letter of the law, potentially jeopardizing their clients or their own work.

Local advocates are just as worried about the impact on low income, rural communities and on communities of color, who don’t have access to the same resources for treatment as those in other areas. “This law separates mothers from their children and is not patient-centered,” said Cherisse A. Scott, founder and CEO of SisterReach, a reproductive justice advocacy organization, and a member of the Healthy and Free Tennessee coalition.  “Tennessee families who are already being hit the hardest by policies such as the failure to expand Medicaid, poverty and a lack of available drug treatment facilities will be most deeply impacted by this bill. Mothers struggling with drug addiction in Shelby County, rural communities throughout Tennessee and poor mothers and their families will be the ones who suffer the effects of this dangerous legislation the most.”

Although the anti-abortion group Personhood USA appears to support this law as a protection against “child abuse,” other abortion opponents reject the idea of sending pregnant drug users to prison, fearing it could lead them to abortion instead of continuing pregnancy.  “We’re also concerned that a pregnant woman struggling with addiction might see abortion as her only realistic way of avoiding criminal prosecution. In our view, the most pro-life thing a society can do is to ensure that pregnant women have all the resources they need to care for themselves and their children,” states All Our Lives, an anti-abortion pro-women’s rights organization.

The state has put a two year sunset clause into the bill in order to evaluate its impact and determine if it should continue after 2016. However, legal groups opposing the law have signaled an intent to challenge it in the courts, potentially blocking SB 1391 from ever being put into practice.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock

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12:51PM PDT on May 13, 2014

i'm just wondering why this is just now posting, it went into effect June of 2013, me thinks politics has something to do with it

12:14PM PDT on May 8, 2014

to me this a funny law because, when you see some of these TN politicians on C-span or news shows that it seems they're a product of fetal alcohol syndrome

10:00AM PDT on May 7, 2014

I can imagine bars and restaurants stocking pregnancy tests and making each woman take one, if she orders a glass of wine or mixed drink!

4:26AM PDT on May 7, 2014


2:32PM PDT on May 6, 2014

There is a book called What's the matter with Kansas.......well I say what's the matter with Tenn....when one of their senators says giving our citizens healthcare is Nazi-ism but he's not the only one. If they SINCERELY cared about human life---they would get behind the ACA and IMPROVE IT !!! What does it mean to be a free-woman as we all should be according to the law of this land. Reproductive freedom lies at the heart of the promise of human dignity, self- determination ..... liberty, and that those rights cannot be nullified by a bunch of white men PLAYING GOD who want to impose their WILL onto women through legislation. We WILL NOT ALLOW IT !!! They have to get it thru their thick heads.

6:26AM PDT on May 5, 2014

I think the opponents missed something. It is not only poor black pregnant women who can show up with drugs in their system. Is there a provision that the lab doing the blood tests become a "mandatory reporter"? If so, there will shortly be a bunch of well to do white women who will be learning the ins and outs of a police station. Yeah right!

5:25AM PDT on May 5, 2014

well said, Bill and Linda

7:37PM PDT on May 4, 2014


4:38PM PDT on May 4, 2014

Wish we could get together on reasonable ways to support women without making new crimes

3:45PM PDT on May 4, 2014

As several other posters have pointed out, lots of things women do - pregnant or not - pose a threat to embryos and fetuses. Drinking booze, smoking, heck, even breathing polluted air can all harm the unborn. Shall we arrest women for lighting up when they are in the family way? Then the privately-run prisons will have no trouble getting their quotas of inmates - two at a time.

In other countries, drug addiction is regarded as an illness, and treated as such.

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