Tennessee law to permit criminal charges against pregnant moms who abuse drugs

By: CBS
By: CBS

CBS - A new law takes effect in Tennessee this summer that allows criminal charges to be brought against pregnant women who abuse drugs.

Tennessee will be the only place where a mother can be prosecuted based on the impact from drugs on her pregnancy. A mother can avoid going to jail if she enrolls in a drug treatment program.

The American Civil Liberties Union says the law is "dangerous" and could prevent women from getting necessary prenatal care.

Others, such as women's groups, health care providers and U.S. drug czars, have also spoken out against the law, CBS News legal analyst Rikki Klieman noted, adding, "The ACLU was not alone here."

However, on the other side of the equation, Klieman said the law functions as a "velvet hammer."

"This is a law that is saying, 'Look, we're giving up in Tennessee.' We have in Tennessee 921 cases last year of neonatal abstinence syndrome, meaning a child born of a pregnant mother who was drug addicted, the child is addicted. And what happens to this child is horrific.

"So they're saying, just as you'd introduced this, if you go into drug treatment, you're not going to jail. So the argument of saying, 'We're stopping women from from getting any kind of drug treatment because they're afraid of being arrested, that's a false argument. You've got a situation here where you need accountability. We have babies having babies. We have drug addicts having babies. What the governor has said after 10 days of in-depth study, is to say, 'I hear what everybody's telling me. I just don't know what else to do'."

The issue, according to Klieman, goes beyond a woman's right to choose. "This isn't just about the pregnancy," she said. "If you're a drug addict, you're giving birth to a drug-addicted child."

In 17 states, Klieman noted, these types of cases are considered child abuse.

"When we look at the spectrum, this has just been growing as a drug epidemic," Klieman said. "It's really a frightening thing."

The law will be in effect for two years, and during that time, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam says he will study the law.

Klieman said, "He's going to see if ultimately families are being separated and this is a draconian law."
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