feared prosecution while the fetal assault law was in effect, the number of pregnant and postpartum women enrolling in treatment actually declined after the law was repealed.
“People fear the government,” he said. “I’m not sure the general public understands there’s no risk. Because of the decline in the number of women in treatment, we’re hearing rumors that the law may be brought up again this year. The purpose of the fetal assault law was to help women get in recovery drug court, but it got used in a variety of different ways.”
It is estimated that at least 100 women were arrested under the fetal assault law.
“The bill wasn’t written just to prosecute, but the way it was interpreted by ladies in the community was that if they were pregnant and drug dependent they’d lose their babies and go to jail,” said Dr. Stephen Loyd, internal medicine physician and Tennessee’s medical director for substance abuse services. “Therefore, they wouldn’t let anybody know. So, they weren’t only not getting prenatal care, they also weren’t getting basic medical care for complications arising from injection drug use. It made things very difficult. In fact, we’re still feeling the repercussions.”
The decline in the number of women with a substance use disorder receiving treatment was accompanied by a decline in the amount of time the women spent in treatment facilities – contradicting the alleged intention of the law.
“The intent of the law was to get women into treatment,” Dr. Loyd said. “People that I work with every day are not for incarcerating people for substance abuse. We feel very strongly that people deserve a chance at treatment.”
Lawmakers in Alabama and South Carolina also prosecuted new mothers and pregnant women with substance use disorders, under claims of child endangerment and/or chemical endangerment, but Tennessee was the only state that had a specific legislation criminalizing pregnant women who used drugs. If the state’s fetal assault law gets reenacted, it will possibly be modified.
“The primary sponsor of the law is a woman [State Representative Terri Lynn Weaver] with a very good heart,” Bragg said. “She believes very strongly she’s helping women in need and there are several new legislators who could view the law differently, but at this point, we can’t say whether the law will pass again or not.”
The rising number of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome was one of the arguments used by legislators in Tennessee who supported the fetal assault law. However, specialists agree that newborn babies who display symptoms of substance withdrawal actually benefit by having the mothers around.
“The ideal situation would be for women to have access to treatment in places where they can keep their children with them,” Salter said. “We have worked really hard to educate our legislators and the governor, but there’s still lack of knowledge around what addiction is.”
There is a total of nine programs in Tennessee that allow women to… (continue reading)