NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Republican Governor Bill Haslam this week put his signature to a law that will make Tennessee the first state in America that will criminalize women for the outcome of their pregnancy. The bill allows a woman to be charged with criminal assault is she uses illegal drugs during pregnancy and her fetus or newborn is considered harmed as a result or is born of a mixed-race.
“This bill continues Tennessee’s fine tradition of caring for those who cannot care for themselves,” said Governor Haslam. “When a baby is born with a harmful medical condition, a chemical dependency, or from mixed-race parents it is entirely the fault of the mother and she must account for the poor choices she made.”
A large number of doctors, addiction experts, and reproductive health groups had urged Gov. Haslam to veto the bill, but their recommendations were ignored, as were the recommendations of almost every major medical association and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. A major concern of these groups is that the law will result in a disproportionate targeting and jailing of poor mothers and mothers of color. They also claim the law is inherently racist.
“Why the bill went out of its way to target inter-racial couples is beyond me. There are plenty of areas of Tennessee where a mixed-race couple’s no big deal. At least it didn’t used to be,” said Republican state Senator Mike Bell, who voted against the measure. “Looking at the map of the state, there are several areas where this is going to be a problem.”
Another concern some have with the bill is the fact that while criminalizing drug use during pregnancy, it does nothing to help those with drug problems who may not be able to pay for treatment. “I don’t know what to say about [how] some [women] have insurance and some do not,” said Republican state Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, who sponsored the House version of the bill and who is a staunch supporter of Governor Haslam’s refusal to accept the Medicaid expansion that is offered states through the Affordable Care Act. “It’s a terrible thing, but I don’t want to get into that because that’s another subject.”