On April 29, the Tennessee Legislature passed a bill that will allow a mother to be prosecuted for causing a child to be born addicted or harmed because of her illegal use of narcotics during the pregnancy. The bill will allow a woman to be prosecuted for assault if the infant she is carrying is harmed or dies. The bill has an unusual sunset provision, which means that the criminal penalty will be in effect until 2016. After that time, the legislature will revisit the issue. Tennessee has criminalized drug use during pregnancy in the past, but opponents said the measure would prevent women from seeking prenatal treatment or from entering rehabilitation programs. The legislature decriminalized it for a few years, but with the use of prescription narcotics on the rise, the law has been revived.
Critics of the measure focus primarily on the rights of the mother, while supporters view that the health and safety of children should be a primary focus. In either case, the reality is children in Tennessee are being born addicted to drugs. Last year alone, there were 921 babies born dependent on prescription medication. This year, the number so far is 253 at the time of this post.
While all Tennesseans would agree that the state should protect infants from being born addicted or even from death due to the illegal actions of their mothers, the law raises some interesting questions, such as does it in fact deter women from seeking treatment? Should there be some kind of amnesty for a woman who willingly enters an addiction program to get better and protect her baby? Who will bear the cost of caring for the infant that is born to an incarcerated mother? What is the best interest of the child in all of this? Is incarceration or the fear of incarceration even a deterrent to a drug addict? What purpose does incarceration serve in preparing the woman to be a fit mother?