Tennessee Bill Would Sentence Pregnant Women Who Use Drugs to Up to 15 Years

There is dangerous legislation sitting on the desk of my governor, Bill Haslam, and if he doesn't veto it in the next few days, pregnant mothers of color and poor mothers could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty of using illegal drugs.


As a black woman and a mother working to support the human rights of other black women, women and girls of color, as well as poor women here in Tennessee, I find SB1391, which passed both chambers of the state legislature here recently, to be another direct assault on our bodies by politicians. But the bill is, on a more basic level, counterproductive to what Tennessee touts as its primary investment: families.

The legislation fails to support the right of low-income mothers – especially from communities of color – to regain custody of their infantsand their older children, since low-income women have the fewest resources to navigate court systems or the child welfare bureaucracy. To be clear: the women most impacted by SB1391 have the least access to healthcare in a state which has rejected the Affordable Care Act.

Of course, there may be another reason a bipartisan group of legislators opposed the bill: the possibility that mothers may abort pregnancies to avoid jail time.

But who are we kidding here? I am not convinced that the health and well-being of poor children born to poor mothers is a priority in the Tennessee legislature, especially when mothers suffering with addiction and poverty don't yet have clearly defined plans to be reunited with their children – or sustain themselves and their families. There is no clear plan in place to cut down on the bill's punitive measures for mothers attempting to re-enter the already low-paying job force or access affordable housing.

It's all too easy for politicians to demonize a mother before we get to the root causes of her lived experiences. And it is too easy still for many in our state – and others – to impose a rational point of view on an irrational situation. What we know is that drug addiction is a physical and mental-health condition which, if monitored by capable medical professionals, is often manageable and, at best, curable.

So why are Tennessee lawmakers so unwilling to trust doctors?

Neither the legal community nor legislators themselves should ever usurp the responsibility of making any medical decisions – on behalf of anyone. It was the responsibility of both the sponsors of this legislation and district attorneys state-wide to consult with those trained to support mothers through prenatal care services and mothers struggling with addiction. Multiple medical associations and counseling services, as well as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Tennessee Association of Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Other Addiction Services,opposed SB1391 as the dangerous threat it is.

These doctors stressed that any such law would continue a frightening trend of women who fail to seek out prenatal care – 23% of pregnant women in Tennessee receive none at all, and the trend is more common among women of color. A 2009 review by the National Institutes of Health found that 30% of women in a study failed to get prenatal care because of substance abuse problems.

Now, Tennessee advocates and clinicians working hard to reduce the high rates of infant mortality – and persons living with undetected HIV – will have even more difficult work to do.

Indeed, this kind of bill is a barrier to preventative measures already in place. This is the kind of law that would ultimately destroy lives.

Drug addiction isn't a choice – it is a health problem, and jail is not the cure. Supporting the long-term sustainability of all Tennessee families is a better solution. It is time for Governor Haslam to choose on behalf of families, not another unsettling precedent.

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