Under a law recently passed by the Tennessee legislature, women may face prosecution for assault or criminal homicide if their drug use during pregnancy is believed to have harmed or killed their children. All Our Lives is calling on the governor of Tennessee to veto the bill. Although we share Tennessee lawmakers’ concern for the lives and health of children, we disagree that these laws are the best way — or even an effective way — to protect fetal and newborn life.

Determining the effects of maternal drug use on the developing child is not simple or straightforward. Mothers who struggle with drug addiction often face many other challenges. Their children may suffer adverse health effects of maternal poverty and stress, unhealthy environments, unplanned or poorly timed pregnancy, and lack of prenatal care. It can be difficult to separate these effects from any harms directly resulting from drug use. But even in those cases in which the link between a mother’s drug use and harm to her child is clear, the question remains: How does sending her to prison help her child, or any other child?

Punishment doesn’t heal. And as we’ve seen through decades of the drug war, the possibility of punishment isn’t much of a deterrent to drug use.

In 2011, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a statement titled “Substance abuse reporting and pregnancy: the role of the obstetrician–gynecologist.” They reported the following:

  • Incarceration and the threat of incarceration have not reduced the incidence of alcohol or drug abuse.
  • The fear of being reported to the police causes patients to avoid or distrust doctors. This can mean they don’t get adequate prenatal care, which leads to worse health outcomes for both mother and child.
  • It is often the case that pregnant women struggling with addiction have sought care. Unfortunately, many couldn’t get into a treatment program that serves pregnant women, couldn’t afford treatment, or found that available programs failed to accommodate their family and work lives.

All of this is the exact opposite of what people who are concerned about the lives and health of children should want. We’re also concerned that a pregnant woman struggling with addiction might see abortion as her only realistic way of avoiding criminal prosecution.

In our view, the most pro-life thing a society can do is to ensure that pregnant women have all the resources they need to care for themselves and their children. In the case of women who are addicted to drugs, that would include immediate access to affordable, high quality drug treatment programs.

SB1391 has a good intent behind it, but good intent does not guarantee good effect. And we fear that the effect of this law will be to discourage vulnerable women from seeking care that would benefit themselves and their babies, and even to provide an incentive for abortion. That doesn’t foster life.

RHRealityCheck has put up a petition to Governor Haslam. We know that there are a lot of pro-lifers who wouldn’t be comfortable signing a petition run by RHRealityCheck, so if you’d prefer to the governor’s office directly, the number is (615) 741-2001.

Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) in the Senate, and Representatives Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Jackie Speier (D-CA), Susan Davis (D-CA), and Marcia Fudge (D-OH) in the House, have re-introduced the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act in the new Congress. PWFA would require companies to provide pregnant employees with the same types of accommodations that are required for disabled workers under the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to Casey’s office:

Currently, pregnant working women around the country are being denied simple adjustments – permission to use a stool while working a cash register, or to carry a bottle of water to stay hydrated, or temporary reassignment to lighter duty tasks – that would keep them working and supporting their families while maintaining healthy pregnancies. The legislation will close legal loopholes and ensure that pregnant women are treated fairly on the job.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act will accomplish this by requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers and preventing employers from forcing women out on leave when another reasonable accommodation would allow them to continue working. The bill also bars employers from denying employment opportunities to women based on their need for reasonable accommodations related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.

In recent and startling examples, Amy Crosby, a hospital cleaner in Tallahassee, Florida, was forced into unpaid leave from her job when the hospital refused to accommodate her doctor’s request that she not lift more than 20 pounds because of her pregnancy; Heather Wiseman, a retail worker in Salina, Kansas, was fired because she needed to carry a water bottle to stay hydrated and prevent bladder infections; and Victoria Serednyj, an activity director at a nursing home in Valparaiso, Indiana, was terminated because she required help with some physically strenuous aspects of her job to prevent having another miscarriage. For the well-being of pregnant workers, and for the sake of the economic stability of American families, our laws must be updated and clarified.

The National Women’s Law Center has more information in their PWFA factsheet.

Preventing pregnant mothers from having to choose between the jobs they need to provide for their families on one hand, and their own health and the health of their unborn children on the other, is pro-life. If you agree and you are in the U.S., please contact your Senators and Representatives to ask them to cosponsor the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (H.R. 1975 in the House and S. 942 in the Senate).

Here are some talking points you can use in your email and phone call:

  • Women make up about half of the U.S. workforce. Two-thirds of women who had their first child between 2006 and 2008 worked during their pregnancies. Workers are not machines to be shaped to suit jobs — we are people who deserve to have our needs accommodated.
  • The PWFA relies on a reasonable accommodation framework already familiar to employers accustomed to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Most of the required accomodations are small and inexpensive for the employer — such as allowing employees to use a stool instead of standing or to have a water bottle with them as they work — but they can make a huge difference for the employee and her child.
  • If your Representative or Senator identifies as pro-life, remind them that they would be helping to protect the lives and health of unborn children as well as their mothers.

Please let us know how your call goes, or if you get a response to your email!

Last week, U.S. Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), Tom Marino (R-PA), Patrick Meehan (R-PA), David Joyce (R-OH), Gwen Moore (D-WI), and Marcia Fudge (D-OH) introduced the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act (H. R. 2772). According to Wasserman Schultz’s office:

This bipartisan legislation encourages states to pass laws that allow women to petition for the termination of parental rights based on clear and convincing evidence that a child was conceived through rape. The bill would provide incentives to states with protective statutes through a grant program that provides additional federal funding through two programs authorized in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) – the STOP Violence Against Women Formula Grant and the Sexual Assault Services Program.

One important aspect of the bill is that it calls upon states to allow mothers to petition for termination of rapists’ parental rights if they can show “clear and convincing evidence” that they were raped. Most states that allow termination of rapists’ parental rights require a conviction, but of course most rapes do not result in conviction. In fact, rapists have been known to pressure their victims into not pressing charges by threatening to sue for custody if they do.

All Our Lives supports this legislation and calls upon all pro-life organizations to do the same.