Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam Criminalizes Drug Use While Pregnant

Kim LaCapria

In a controversial legislative move, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has enacted measures punishing pregnant women who abuse drugs before they give birth.

Of the bill, Haslam, a Republican, cites discussions he says he had with mental health and criminal justice experts. The Tennessee governor opines that such measures stand to drive down the abuse of drugs by pregnant mothers via legal consequences, and the lawmaker explained:

“[Experts are] the ones that are actually on the front lines of this… They’re the ones – particularly the DA’s – who will have the prosecutorial discretion involved.”

Under the law, a pregnant woman could face charges of misdemeanor assault should she be found to be using illicit drugs during her pregnancy, a measure many believe will discourage addicts who are with child from seeking help and ultimately alerting authorities to possible risks faced by the fetus.

Additionally, opponents believe that pregnant women will be shut out from resources aimed at drug use prevention and addiction help, worsening the issue by driving these women to further conceal their substance abuse problems.

Gov. Bill Haslam himself admitted that such a circumstance is possible under the new law, admitting Tuesday morning:

“One of the things we were a little uncertain about was when could the mother go back and say I do have this issue, now I want to be eligible, she could kind of raise her hand and volunteer for treatment on their own before the judicial system got involved.”

Reproductive rights advocates have expressed deeper concern than Haslam over the new implications of Tennessee’s drug laws, and Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, commented:

“Today, the Tennessee governor has made it a crime to carry a pregnancy to term if you struggle with addiction or substance abuse… 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.”

Gov. Bill Haslam has stated that his office will be carefully monitoring the effects of the new law as its effects are recorded and measured. However, several groups — including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American College of Obstetricians — believe that criminalizing the use of drugs while pregnant has documentable adverse effects on the effort to assist women struggling with drug addiction during pregnancy.