As they are currently written, two bills in the state legislature could lead to assault or criminal homicide charges for pregnant women who use illegal drugs.
But the sponsor of one of these bills (HB1519), Rep. John DeBerry (D-Memphis), vowed this week to work on his bill's language so that there's "no room or intent to simply incarcerate people rather than getting them the help they desperately need."
The other bill, SB1391, is sponsored by Sen. Reginald Tate (D-Memphis), and it's on the calendar to be heard in committee this week. Tate did not return calls to the Flyer for comment.
Critics of both bills, as they are written now, say they're seeking to criminalize pregnant women and that the bills could have a negative effect on the care the baby receives.
"These women need supportive programs. Punitive measures will only make women not seek prenatal care. They will lie to their doctors [about their drug use], and it could lead to unwanted abortions by women who are afraid of getting prosecuted and convicted," said Allison Glass, the statewide organizer for Healthy and Free Tennessee, which promotes reproductive health and sexual freedom.
It's concerns like these that convinced DeBerry to give the bill another look. After meeting with Glass and hearing from others, he's considering removing language that allows assault and criminal homicide charges. The bill was recommended to DeBerry by the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, but DeBerry said he doesn't believe the district attorneys' goal is to prosecute women.
"If those are the red flags in the bill for a lot of these women's groups, then I'll either take that out or I'll take the bill off notice," DeBerry said.
Last week, he rolled the bill. And now he says he'll roll it again until the language is reworked.
"My sole intent is to save these women's lives and those of their unborn children," DeBerry said. "There is absolutely no intent on simply trying to incarcerate them. But some women's groups were afraid, even with the drug court's record, that someone will use this as some kind of stick against pregnant women."
As it is written, DeBerry's bill does allow a woman to avoid prosecution by attending and completing a long-term addiction recovery program either before the child is born or after delivery. He said drug court programs in most counties would be able to help women who could not afford to pay for drug treatment.
"This bill is seeking to protect the woman and the child," DeBerry said. "It's for when you have a person who obviously has emotional and psychological issues to the extent that they're poisoning their own body and their child's with these drugs."
But Glass questions the effectiveness of drug treatment for women who are essentially forced into rehab.
"People who are familiar with addiction know that the addict has to make the choice to want to get help," Glass said. "There's a big question of how effective it is if you are forcing a person to go through a program."
A change.org petition against both bills has garnered several hundred signatures as of press time. Karen D'Apolito of Nashville, vice-president of programs for the National Parinatal Association, opposes the bills as written and hopes to see more emphasis on treatment rather than criminal charges. She also said, despite popular belief, babies cannot be "born addicted."
"If a baby has withdrawal, we can treat that," D'Apolito said. "But babies cannot be born addicted. They're exposed but not addicted."