Laws Criminalizing Pregnant Women Put People Who Need Health Care in Handcuffs

February 10, 2016 | Reproductive Rights

In 2014, Tennessee enacted a law that threatens women with jail time if they give birth to babies who are shown to have been affected by the use of narcotics during pregnancy. As a result, women are being randomly drug tested in the hospital after giving birth, and arrested days after bringing home their babies. Others are being targeted for disclosing a past history of drug use at a prenatal visit. This law has been used to punish women who have used narcotic drugs and given birth to healthy babies, as well as women who never used drugs. A law that was touted to be about encouraging pregnant women and new mothers who have used drugs to seek treatment has instead meant dragging women into the criminal justice system.

Proponents of the law have made claims that it is working, that it is making a difference. Many communities in Tennessee are struggling to figure out how to deal with a drug use epidemic, but this policy is not the solution. While there may be women in Tennessee who feel that the threat of jail time pushed them to seek treatment, many more were forced into the criminal justice system because they had no other option.

There are simply not enough programs willing or able to treat pregnant women. There are only 12 licensed methadone centers throughout Tennessee, none of which accept TennCare (the state’s Medicaid program) or other health insurance. Additionally, only 11 of the 39 licensed residential detox programs in the state accept pregnant women. A recent report from the state’s drug treatment professional association found that more than 4,000 pregnant women in Tennessee need access to addiction treatment each year, but even at maximum capacity, the 11 programs only offer 132 treatment beds. Waiting lists for care can reach over 1,000 people at any given time.

It is unconscionable that women are told they can avoid incarceration by seeking treatment when Tennessee has nowhere near the number of beds required to meet the need. Moreover, this policy is not actually helping. Mothers are being separated from their children, and recent reports demonstrate that there has been no decrease in the number of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, the temporary and treatable symptoms associated with opioid use during pregnancy. Addiction is a public health issue — a woman should never find herself facing prosecution because of a health condition during pregnancy.

The bottom line is that this law is hurting far more people than it could ever help. It does not help women who live in communities where it is difficult and expensive to seek rehabilitation. This measure does not expand services so that low-income parents can complete the required treatment, even though the cost of treatment is just a fraction of the cost of jailing someone.

But there is good news: Tennessee doesn't have to renew this law. Lawmakers can allow it to expire in July of this year. They can create fair and effective policies that actually help mothers and their babies — policies that help to build stronger families and communities across Tennessee.

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