Pregnant women in the state of Tennessee are too terrified to seek hospital care because of a law that allows them to be charged with assault if they use narcotics during their pregnancy.
When the law passed a year ago, health advocates predicted that it would deter women from seeking medical care and that forecast has now become a reality.
“We are getting lots of anecdotal information about women not seeking critical prenatal care, and avoiding going to the hospital to give birth, because they are scared of being arrested and having their baby taken away,” Allison Glass, the state director of Healthy and Free Tennessee, a nonprofit women's advocacy group, reportedly said.
“Not only does the current law do nothing to help those who may, in fact, need treatment, but it’s actually having a negative public health impact,” she added.
The law was originally passed in response to a statewide increase in babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) which is a set of symptoms that occur when babies experience withdrawal from narcotics.
Tennessee is the only state in the country that has explicitly criminalized drug use during pregnancy; therefore they are setting the precedent for how to treat pregnant women battling addiction.
Since the law was implemented, at least 30 women have been arrested for drug use during pregnancy, according to Glass which has resulted in fewer women seeking help from state-funded treatment facilities.
“I think word of mouth, stories about some of the arrests started to make headlines," said Mary Linden Salter, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Alcohol, Drug & Addiction Services. "There was definitely a drop-off after that point.”
When babies experience NAS they can be irritable, have difficulty feeding and sleeping or experience vomiting and diarrhea, however, the condition is totally treatable, Huffington Post reports.
With that in mind, women’s health advocates and critics of the law argue that separating newborn babies from their mothers can lead to much more severe health problems than NAS.
The law is set to expire under a sunset provision in 2016 but lawmakers can act to extend it. The hope is that in review of how effective this law has been, officials will realize that criminalizing mothers fighting addiction wasn't the way to go.
Sure, women should be held accountable for endangering fetuses, but the structure of this law just puts them in even more danger by not having pregnancies monitored by trained medical staff in clean and safe environments.
Ultimately, the Tennessee law is punishing the child more than the mother. The first few days postpartum are critical for nurturing a baby's first human interactions.
Furthermore, jail time isn’t really what these women need in the first place but rather accessible and affordable treatment.
“We don’t have a lot of treatment capacity, and yet we are penalizing women for not being able to get access to treatment,” Salter said.
Regardless of her shortcomings, a newborn baby needs its mother.