Tennessee may make it a crime for a mother to use drugs while pregnant

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(CNN) – A bill is headed for the governor’s desk in Tennessee that would allow for a woman to be prosecuted if she illegally takes drugs while pregnant and the child is harmed.

Known as SB1391, the bill passed both the Senate and the House last week. Once his office receives the legislation, Gov. Bill Haslam will have 10 days, not including Sundays, to act on it.

“We all want to promote healthy pregnancies by providing pregnant women struggling with a drug or alcohol dependency with the opportunity to seek the best possible prenatal care and substance abuse treatment,” Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, wrote in a letter to Haslam this week.

“However, policies that threaten women with criminal prosecution and the loss of their children drive women away from health care and discourage them from seeking invaluable prenatal and pregnancy-related care. SB1391 is constitutionally unsound and enacting this law would threaten the health and well-being of Tennessee women and their families. We urge you to veto this dangerous legislation.”

The governor’s office declined to say whether Haslam would sign the bill.

“As with all legislation, the governor will review the bill in its final form before taking action,” Laura Herzog, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in an e-mail to CNN.

She stressed that the current form of the bill includes the following provisions:

– The charge would be limited to a misdemeanor;

– An offense would only occur if there is the illegal use of a narcotic drug;

– Women who seek treatment while they’re pregnant and complete the program would not be charged.

Such stipulations, however, do not go far enough, according to critics of the bill such as Jeff Teague, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee.

“One of our primary concerns is making sure women have healthy pregnancies and then healthy children, and the big concern here is that this is going to frighten women away from the treatment they need for a healthy pregnancy, as well as treatment for any substance abuse issues that they have.

Teague added: “It’s of particular concern in rural areas because there’s not enough facilities that have the ability to provide addiction counseling for pregnant women.”

Attempts to contact sponsors of the bill — Sen. Reginald Tate, a Democrat, and Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, a Republican — were unsuccessful Thursday.

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, more than 900 newborns in Tennessee in 2013 experienced withdrawal from drugs their mothers used while pregnant.

The department reports a nearly ten-fold rise in the incidence of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome in Tennessee over the past decade.

If the bill becomes law, Tennessee would become the first state to authorize the filing of assault charges when a fetus or newborn is found to be harmed by illegal narcotics, according to a Wednesday op-ed in The New York Times that called for Haslam to veto the legislation.

“He can show he truly cares about protecting pregnant women, children and families by vetoing the bill, as specialists in obstetric medicine and drug addiction, as well as women’s rights groups have urged,” the editorial read.

“As Governor Haslam should see, the measure is about punishing women — mainly poor minority women — not getting them into treatment or protecting their babies.”

By Suzanne Presto and Dana Ford

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