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A Tennessee bill that punishes women who give birth to drug-addicted babies was signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Bill Haslam.
Sullivan County District Attorney Gen. Barry Staubus championed the bill and testified in front of the Tennessee Senate regarding the problem of drug-addicted babies. He has seen the results of pregnant mothers abusing drugs firsthand, as Sullivan County accounts for 10 percent of all Tennessee babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome.
"I'm pleased the governor signed the bill into law," Staubus said. "I know that there was opposition to him signing it. My opinion is this law gives law enforcement and attorneys an opportunity to hold people accountable for the harm they can do to children. This bill holds women accountable who choose to take drugs."
The legislation would allow women to be charged with misdemeanor assault if they abuse narcotics while pregnant and the child is dependent on drugs or harmed as a result of the drug abuse. The law goes into effect July 1.
Mothers could avoid charges by checking into one of the state's treatment programs.
Staubus said this bill is not designed to go after mothers who may have smoked marijuana in their first trimester or took pills during their first trimester and then stopped. It's targeting women who abuse drugs throughout their pregnancy, and even ingest drugs up to 24 hours before giving birth.
This is not the first time Tennessee has criminalized women who abuse drugs while pregnant. The state eliminated punishment for pregnant mothers in 2012 in favor of treatment and last year enacted the Safe Harbor Act, which protected the custody rights of mothers and gave them priority placement in the state's treatment facilities.
There has been growing opposition toward the new bill. Opponents are concerned it would hurt the babies and fear women will not seek neonatal care out of fear of incarceration. Another fear is drug-addicted mothers will not seek help when their newborns begin to show signs of suffering from drug dependence out of fear of jail, the Associated Press reports.
Staubus said in his experience, drug-addicted women typically do not seek neonatal care, but there is an option for women to avoid jail time.
"We want to give mothers an opportunity to get (drug) treatment long term," he said. "My hope is women will hear about this law and want to go to the programs. Now they have an incentive to do it and can prevent their children from being taken away."
Another issue, health professionals say, is significant reports of fetal death when a mother tries to detox while pregnant. The fetus simply cannot handle the stress of detox.
Staubus said this bill is a stick-and-carrot approach because without the potential of punishment, some women would never seek treatment.
The law has a "sunset provision," which will allow the state to reassess its effectiveness in two years. In that time, data will be collected about what impact the law is having on mothers and babies.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey was instrumental in getting this bill passed, Staubus said.
In 2013, there were 124 babies born with NAS in Northeast Tennessee, with 84 of those babies born in Sullivan County. Sullivan County had the fifth-highest number of NAS births in the entire state of Tennessee during that year. Northeast Tennessee overall has the second-highest number of NAS babies in the state, only behind the entire eastern side of the state.