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 call the governor’s office directly, the number is (615) 741-2001.