A Tennessee bill, awaiting a governor’s signature, could send pregnant women addicted to illegal narcotics or prescription pain pills to jail. This bill has bipartisan support but also has objections from doctors. With the number of drug dependent babies increasing, State Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver notes that she initially wanted to charge women with homicide if their drug-dependent newborn died. Recognizing that this was a drastic approach, she now gives women the option to get treatment. “We can’t make her get help herself,” says Weaver, “but, by golly, we can give her an option and a choice.”
When a drug dependent baby is born, it may suffer from withdrawal symptoms a day after birth, which is called “neonatal abstinence syndrome.” At its worst, the baby will suffer from seizures, but it is unclear if there are long-term effects.
Farah Diaz-Tello of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, says, “What Tennessee is doing is creating a law that would permit this kind of prosecution — not for murder, but it would allow for reckless endangerment, which is a misdemeanor, all the way up to aggravated assault.” An assault charge could mean up to 15 years behind bars.
However, medical professionals and people in the medical community are seeing it a different way, saying that the punitive approach, even with its treatment option, will drive away women or encourage more abortions. Jessica Young, an obstetrician at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who specializes in drug treatment during pregnancy, says that lawmakers don’t realize that drug addiction is a sickness.
“Being a poorly controlled diabetic is terrible for pregnancy — probably equally as bad as drug addiction — and we don’t legislate those choices,” says Young. “I just think this is an easy group to pick on because addiction has such a stigma.”