NASHVILLE - Opponents of a Tennessee bill that would punish pregnant women who abuse narcotics say it will have the unintended consequence of hurting the very people it's supposed to protect: the babies.
Health organizations and women's rights advocates have called on Gov. Bill Haslam to veto a bill that would allow women to be charged with assault if they abuse narcotics while pregnant and then give birth to a child who is dependent on drugs or harmed as a result of the mother's drug abuse.
The bill passed in both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly last week and is headed to Haslam to be signed into law.
National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a New York-based advocacy organization, says despite attempts by other states, Tennessee is the first to pass such a bill.
The bill's supporters have argued that it will help children and families by forcing women to finally get treatment.
Those opposed to the bill say it could force pregnant women to forgo vital medical care if they believe they will be arrested for taking illicit drugs.
"This is the primary concern that most folks have with this kind of law: that it's going to create worse outcomes for babies by preventing the moms from getting prenatal care," said Farah Diaz-Tello, a staff attorney with National Advocates for Pregnant Women. The group and the ACLU are among a number of organizations that are calling on Haslam to veto the bill.
Rep. Terri Weaver, a Republican from Lancaster, and Sen. Reginald Tate, a Democrat from Memphis, were the primary sponsors of the bill. Neither immediately responded to telephone and email messages Friday.
Last week Weaver dismissed concerns that women would fail to get prenatal care.
"These ladies are not those who would consider prenatal care," Weaver said on the House floor last week before the bill passed. "These are ladies who are strung out on heroin and cocaine and their only next decision is how to get their next fix."
But health care workers also fear the bill would prevent mothers from later bringing in infants who are suffering from drug dependency out of fear that they would be arrested. The experts note that signs of such dependency can come days or weeks after the baby has been born and first left the hospital.
"That's when the baby really does suffer," said Kyle Cook, a neonatal nurse practitioner at East Tennessee Children's Hospital. Cook noted that newborns with drug dependency are often inconsolable, have diarrhea so bad that their bottoms bleed, and have severe vomiting, fevers and sometimes seizures. She said it's important that the moms aren't afraid to bring babies in so the hospital staff can make the infants comfortable.
It is still not clear what Haslam will do.
"As with all legislation, the governor will review the bill in its final form before taking action," Laura Herzog, a spokeswoman for Haslam, said in an email to The Associated Press.
Several of the Haslam administration's departments have had concerns about the legislation and have worked with the sponsor throughout the process, Herzog said. She stressed that the bill applies to women if there is illegal narcotic use and the charge is limited to a misdemeanor. Women who seek drug treatment while they are pregnant and complete the program will not be charged, Herzog said.
The governor has yet to receive the legislation. He will have 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign the bill after he receives it.