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TN Women Will Face 15 Years in Prison For “doping while pregnant”

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preg drugBy Angela L. Braden

Tennessee goes on record as being the first state to criminalize “doping while pregnant.”

For decades, women, who are proven to have done narcotics while pregnant have had to face harsh penalties from child protective services. In many cases, women permanently lose their parental rights for using narcotics that are harmful to the unborn fetus. Now, in the state of Tennessee, pregnant women can be charged with felony assault and sentenced up to 15 years in prison for having narcotics in their system.

The measure, which garnered criticism from addiction counselors, doctors, social workers, and even President Obama’s drug czar, was created by lawmakers to discourage women from using drugs that are harmful to the growth, development, and overall health of their unborn child. Likewise, the effects of these drugs are proven to have long-term effects on the child far beyond birth. Therefore, Tennessee legislatures felt that the new policy was necessary to protect unborn children from their drug addicted mothers.

Supporters of the law say that the measure is not designed to toss addicted mothers in prison. They insist that the legislation was created to establish a path into court-mandated rehab. However, many women who are uneducated, in poverty, and have a history of drug addiction, view rehab as being one step away from jail itself. Many of the pregnant women fear that they will be under court supervision and will have to give urine samples and participate in addiction programs approved by the state. Therefore, criticizers are worried that many drug addicted women will avoid prenatal care for fear of being charged with a crime and sent to rehab. Some have even left the state to give birth elsewhere.

While supporters of the law say that the new policy is meant to be a pathway to rehab, that isn’t the case for Jamillah Falls, the second woman in the southern state to be charged with felony assault of a fetus. Falls was sentenced to six months of prison time after her newborn tested positive for heroine. A spokesperson for the Shelby County prosecuting office said that Falls failed to fulfill the stipulations of her probation, resulting in her being sent to jail.

Cherisse Scott, founder of the reproductive empowerment organization SisterReach, told AlterNet that the new law is detrimental to pregnant women. Scott’s group has been in contact with Falls and says that the new mother has been forced to stay at a halfway house in an dangerous neighborhood and is stressed that she cannot see her baby.
“It’s what we feared. Women already dealing with poverty trying to maintain beyond the detox mandate. Now they have to deal with the stress of the court system, of urine samples, appointments,” said Scott.

National Advocates for Pregnant Women Staff Attorney Farah Diaz-Tello shares the same sentiment about the legislation being very anti-woman.

“This is exactly how this law is intended to work,” Diaz-Tello told AlterNet. “It was never intended to get people help. It’s a method for criminalizing women for the outcome of their pregnancy. It bears out all of the warnings that advocates for women’s health tried to sound the alarm about.”


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