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New Tennessee Law Will Criminalize Pregnant Women

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by Katherine Bisanz and Maggie Rosenblum
of Social Workers for Reproductive Justice

As we speak, the law in Tennessee is turning against women and families. The General Assembly has approved SB 1391, a bill that would turn pregnant women and new mothers into criminals.

SB 1391 takes a law that was intended to protect pregnant women from violence and instead turns them into assailants. The law would permit prosecutors to charge women with assault for losing pregnancies, or giving birth to babies with health problems at birth. The targets of the law are women who are in the most need of support: largely women who struggle with narcotic addiction during pregnancy.

Pregnant_woman2This is all happening under the guise of “finding a solution” for neonatal abstinence syndrome according to the State of Tennessee. They claim that the law is a way to use misdemeanor charges to get women into treatment. Anyone aware of the criminal justice system in our country knows that assault charges can heavily impact the course of a person’s life.

A prison or jail sentence could mean that women will be unable to be present to care for the families they already have or sustain the employment necessary to support a family and get through a treatment program. In a nutshell, Tennessee lawmakers seem to believe that they can “keep babies healthy” by punishing their mothers and don’t seem to grasp how terribly backwards and simply unrealistic this idea is.

It’s clear that no evidence-based information is backing this law being that research around the issue of child health have shown that babies are healthiest when pregnant women are treated with care, and when babies are kept close to their mothers after birth. Even women who struggle with addiction love their babies, and can have healthy pregnancies if they can form supportive relationships with their maternity care providers say Connecticut Affiliate of the American College of Nurse-Midwives.

Groups like National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) have made clear in past cases that punitive measures are the wrong approach in dealing with the “decades-old” question of how to handle pregnant women who take drugs. As opposed to taking a punitive approach that scares women away from seeking help, the state should treat pregnant drug abusers as addicts with medical problems, NAPW states.

Given their role as gatekeepers and mandated reporters, this law could have serious implications for the roles of social workers in the lives of their substance abusing clients in Tennessee.  Social Workers we are trusted to protect clients self-determination and strive to work with clients to empower and better their lives and this bill could compromise our ability to fulfill this imperative and not to mention obligatory aspect of our work.  Despite Rep. Weaver’s (R-TN) comments to the contrary, it’s hard to believe that child abuse allegations akin to those that have popped up in years past won’t arise in some form and in turn question social workers role as mandatory reporters.

This law will also erode choice as it relates to pregnancy. This law may be used by those who wish to prevent a woman from having an abortion who can now just report their concerns that a pregnant woman is using illegal narcotics in order to have her arrested so she will not be able to access abortion care.

Furthermore, this law may pressure some women into having an abortion they do not want in order to avoid prosecution under SB 1391. One study reported that “two-thirds of the women [surveyed] who reported using Cocaine during their pregnancies … considered having an abortion… (Jeanne Flavin, Our Bodies, And Our Crimes: The Policing of Women’s Reproduction in America 112 NYU Press 2009.)

Additionally, while the bill appears race-neutral at first glance, prosecutors and judges will wield the law against Black women more so than white women, based on a long tradition and culture of deeply embedded racial stereotypes about Black motherhood and drug use. The law would likely lead to Black women being thrown in jail for up to 15 years for aggravated assault should they choose to carry a pregnancy to term while struggling with an addiction to illegal narcotics. Should social workers be mandated to take part in this, they would directly be violating the discrimination clause of the NASW code of ethics, which includes the responsibility to racial justice and gender justice.

The NASW Code of Ethics states that, “Social Workers should act to expand choice and opportunity for all people… (NASW 2008).” If SB 1391 is signed into law it will limit choice and opportunities for all Tennessee families. We strongly urge the National Association of Social Workers and its Tennessee chapter as well as individuals who identify as social workers across the nation to speak out against TN SB 1391.

SWHELPER is a news, information, resources, and entertainment website related to social good, social work, and social justice. To submit news and press releases email contact@socialworkhelper.com

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