Tennessee Targets Pregnant Women

Weighing in at Slate this past week writer Amanda Marcotte notes some unwelcome movement in the Tennessee legislature that would try to criminalize a woman’s behavior during pregnancy.

Last year, the legislature passed a bill called the Safe Harbor Act which allows pregnant women to seek drug treatment without the threat of Child Protective Services taking their children away. This year, the legislature is looking to reverse the impact of that legislation by passing a bill that would expand the rights of prosecutors to press assault charges against a woman who experiences pregnancy complications after illegal drug use.

This legislation, if it is signed by the governor, will be the first of its kind in this country, and the article makes a point of outlining how it will undermine both the Safe Harbor Act and maternal healthcare.

If women avoid seeking treatment for drug abuse during pregnancy for fear of having their babies taken from them, then they are definitely going to be afraid to do it if it means risking jail based on something that may be out of their control—the circumstances of childbirth.

Marcotte also notes that the bill only takes aim at illegal drug use (for which African-American women are notoriously over-prosecuted), and not alcohol, which is widely known to cause birth defects.

The Slate piece views this legislation as part of a trend, referencing a recent case in Mississippi where the prosecutor (unsuccessfully) argued that a mother's cocaine use caused the stillbirth of her child, despite the fact that the baby was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck.

In addition to criminalizing pregnancy, the Tennessee bill provokes unsettling questions about how a prosecutor might prove that a certain illegal behavior was directly responsible for any unfavorable pregnancy outcome.