New Bill Targets Pregnant Women With Addiction

By Maggie Ethridge 02/15/19

“This bill’s intent is to protect babies, period,” said the Tennessee bill's original sponsor. 

pregnant woman being targeted for addiction

A bill that calls for the punishment of women who use drugs while pregnant is being introduced to the Tennessee legislature.

House Bill 1168 was recently filed by Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster) and Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma). The bill states that if a woman uses an illegal narcotic while pregnant and if the child is born harmed or drug-dependent, the mother could be charged with assault.

The bill does allow that if the woman completes an addiction recovery program, the charges may be lessened.

The term "addicted babies" is used in the bill but is considered inaccurate and stigmatizing.

Dr. Jana Burson, an opioid addiction treatment specialist and outspoken advocate for methadone and buprenorphine, explains the issue: "According to our definition of addiction... you have to have the psychological component of craving or obsession. By definition infants are not able to experience addiction."

"This bill’s intent is to protect babies, period," State Rep. Weaver said. "The number of babies born addicted to drugs, it has not decreased. It has exponentially increased."

Voices raised against the bill include Erika Lathon, public relations manager of Addiction Campuses. “We believe that perhaps the bill is well-intentioned, we all want to compel pregnant women who have an addiction to reach out and get treatment and to get help to get into an effective program, but we believe this law could really do the opposite.”

Lathon would like to see money invested into addiction treatment rehabilitation centers and other drug addiction outreach programs. “Rather than throwing them into jail and then giving them a bunch of legal problems to deal with, a child going into foster care. All of these things is going to cost taxpayers more money on the back end,” Lathon pointed out.

“A pregnant woman who is battling an addiction is already facing a tremendous amount of stigma and has a number of problems to deal with and then you add on top of that the possibility of her being prosecuted and thrown into jail, we believe that is going to push them further away, make the woman less likely to say, 'Yes I have a problem, yes I’m addicted, yes I need help,'” Lathon said.

WTHR reported that if the bill is made into law, it will go into effect on July 1.

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Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.