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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