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Tennessee 1st State to Criminalize Pregnancy Outcomes

By Rebecca Terrell on 29-Apr-14 16:10. Comments (8)
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Haslam Ignores Experts, Advocates, Signs Law  Harmful to Babies & Families

April 29, 2014  — With Governor Bill Haslam’s signature of the Pregnancy Criminalization Law, SB 1391, Tennessee has become the first state to ignore the warnings of medical and public health experts to pass a law criminalizing pregnancy outcomes.

A coalition of groups that worked to oppose the bill when it was before the General Assembly rallied support for a veto nationally and internationally. A petition circulated by SisterReach,  Healthy and Free Tennessee, National Advocates for Pregnant Women with RH Reality Check gathered over 11,000 signatures, which were hand-delivered to the Governor’s office last Friday, along with a letter from over 25 organizations dedicated to ensuring all families have access to the health care they need. Experts such as International Doctors for Healthier Drug Policy, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Perinatal Association sent letters to Governor Haslam asking him to protect the health of Tennessee families by vetoing the Pregnancy Criminalization Law.

Tennessee advocates shared a concern for the disproportionate impact this law will have on poor mothers, mothers of color and their families. Cherisse A. Scott, founder and CEO of SisterReach, noted “Despite our advocacy attempts and regardless of the impact this law will have on marginalized families; despite the danger that medical professionals have noted a law of this magnitude will cause, our governor chose his party over the experts. This law separates mothers from their children and is not patient-centered.  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.”

Advocates understand that the law will harm mothers and babies by driving women away from prenatal care. Rebecca Terrell, Chair of the statewide coalition Healthy & Free Tennessee, was disappointed. “We are very sorry to see that Governor Haslam let an opportunity to do the right thing slip through his fingers. The experts could not have been clearer: this law is bad for babies and bad for Tennessee.”

This concern was echoed by the acting head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy who criticized the measure on a recent trip to Nashville, telling the Tennessean “What’s important is that we create environments where we’re really diminishing the stigma and the barriers, particularly for pregnant women, who often have a lot of shame and guilt about their substance abuse disorders.” There is also concern among drug treatment providers that the law as passed does not permit women to seek methadone or buprenorphine maintenance, the gold-standard of treatment for pregnant women addicted to narcotics, as part of the defense against prosecution under the law. Maintenance, rather than detoxification, is recommended because of the risk of pregnancy loss from withdrawal.

The vague wording of the law has left unanswered questions about how it will be carried out. “We feel that the Administration and the General Assembly were misled here,” said Farah Diaz-Tello, staff attorney for National Advocates for Pregnant Women. “Prosecutors claimed that this bill only permitted misdemeanor charges, but any public defender in the state can tell you that this is not how the law will be used. What is a misdemeanor in Memphis is charged as a felony out in the counties.”  

The bill has a sunset of 2016, but advocates feel that this is too long to wait for Tennessee families. A legal challenge is anticipated.