Medical experts urge Tennessee governor to veto bill that would jail women for their pregnancy outcomes

The governor has 10 days to sign or veto the bill before it becomes law

By Katie McDonough
Published April 15, 2014 1:47PM (EDT)
  (istockphoto   allanswart)
(istockphoto allanswart)

Medical specialists and reproductive rights groups across Tennessee are urging Republican Gov. Bill Haslam to veto a measure that would criminalize women for their pregnancy outcomes.

As the New York Times notes, many states use criminal law and child welfare policies to penalize, detain and even incarcerate mothers who use drugs (dangerous laws in their own right), but the Tennessee bill would be the first to charge a woman with criminal assault if her fetus or newborn is considered harmed by substance use. This approach openly ignores policy recommendations from the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and other major medical associations that have cautioned that such a measure will not improve pregnancy outcomes, but will likely discourage women from seeking prenatal care or treatment for substance dependence.

And, as many opponents of the bill have pointed out, the bill is so broadly worded that it could expose a pregnant person to criminal prosecution based on anything deemed harmful to a fetus -- including a traffic accident. (If you think this is an exaggeration, please read up on Christine Taylor, a pregnant mother of two who was arrested and jailed after she fell down a flight of stairs.)

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But specialists in obstetric medicine and drug addiction have joined with women’s rights groups to call for the veto. Any risks of narcotics to newborns have been exaggerated, according to medical authorities who say that withdrawal symptoms, if they occur, can be treated with no long-term effects.

For years, conflicts have swirled in many states over the legal rights of pregnant women and the extent to which the authorities can act to protect fetuses. Tennessee has followed an unusual course, first softening its approach and now aiming to restore criminal penalties.

It is one of 38 states with fetal protection laws, originally intended to protect pregnant women from violent crime and bolster the penalties on attackers. A couple of years ago, Tennessee prosecutors began using the law to charge women who gave birth to babies who tested positive for illegal drugs, said Farah Diaz-Tello, a staff lawyer for National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a rights group based in New York.

Legislation passed in 2012, however, barred the filing of criminal charges under the fetal protection law against pregnant women themselves.

Then last year, in an effort to encourage women to enter drug treatment, the state amended its child welfare law, making it harder to remove infants born with traces of illegal drugs from their mothers. But there has been little time to see the effect of these changes.

“Now we’re seeing the General Assembly take two big steps back,” Ms. Diaz-Tello said. “It’s going from a state with some of the best practices to one of the worst.”

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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