To what extent drug-abusing pregnant women should be held accountable in the eyes of the law has been an ongoing debate for decades. In some states, women may be prosecuted for homicide if the baby is stillborn because of drug use, for child endangerment if the child is born with significant defects, or even for giving drugs to a minor. Many of these cases get overturned because the laws were not designed to apply to unborn babies. Tennessee lawmakers are now considering a bill that would allow for prosecuting women for prenatal drug use. The implications could be far-reaching.
The Prenatal Problem
Whether you feel pregnant women should be prosecuted for using drugs, the undeniable truth is prenatal drug abuse is a serious problem. The use of illicit drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes by a pregnant woman can have a real and negative impact on her unborn child. Effects may include low birth weight, developmental deficits, cognitive impairment, brain damage and respiratory problems, among other serious health concerns.
While most pregnant women do not use drugs or alcohol, many do and the use of opioid drugs in particular is a growing problem. Abuse of prescription opioid painkillers has been a growing problem for the last decade, but in recent years many abusers have turned to heroin. Too many of these addicts are pregnant women, and local news outlets report that the number of babies born addicted to opioids keeps growing.
Changing Laws in Tennessee
Two years ago, lawmakers in Tennessee got rid of the criminal penalty for prenatal drug use. The change occurred at a time when most other states similarly barred arrests of pregnant women for abusing drugs. The ban on such arrests in most states is justified by keeping the mother’s rights at the forefront. It is too difficult, many experts agree, to prove that a woman has harmed her unborn child. Not all prenatal drug use leads to clear and detectable birth defects.
Another reason to avoid prosecuting pregnant women for supposed harm to their fetuses is that it would be a strong deterrent to women wanting to get help for their addictions. Most states emphasize treatment for addicted pregnant women rather than criminal prosecution. Some also fear that prosecuting women for drug use unfairly targets those who are living in poverty or are minorities.
Two years after banning criminal prosecution, Tennessee legislators are faced with rethinking it as a new Bill is making its way through the state House and Senate. The push to reinstate criminal prosecution comes as the number of drug-addicted babies in the state has exploded from 56 in 2001 to nearly 900 in 2013. Legislators may be feeling the pressure to do something to curb the number of innocent babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, the symptoms associated with withdrawal from opioids. These include vomiting, seizures, excessive crying and fever.
The increasing number of babies suffering because of their mothers’ addiction is a terrible problem and one for which everyone wants a solution. How to prevent harm to these vulnerable babies, however, is up for debate. While most states still push for treatment and prefer to give pregnant women incentives to seek care rather than to arrest them, some people are feeling desperate. Now it remains for the lawmakers in Tennessee to make a choice and the consequences could reach far and wide. The number of addicted babies is growing across the country and if Tennessee takes the step to criminalize prenatal drug abuse, other states may follow suit.