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Why criminalize prenatal drug use? A letter to Gov. Bill Haslam

Tennessee's governor may sign a bill that would allow drug-addicted pregnant women to be prosecuted as criminals. Host Melissa Harris-Perry hopes he doesn't.

Dear Governor Bill Haslam

April 12, 201403:43
In this March 27, 2013, file photo, Gov. Bill Haslam speaks to a joint session of the Legislature in Nashville, Tenn.

This week, the Tennessee state legislature passed a bill that would allow drug-addicted pregnant women to be prosecuted as criminals.

The bill would permit a woman who used illegal drugs during pregnancy to be charged with assault if her child is born addicted to or harmed, by the drug and to be charged with homicide if the child dies. It also would allow women to avoid those charges if they volunteer for drug treatment.

But before Tennessee's governor makes it official with his signature, I wanted to urge him to consider that this proposed solution may only exacerbate the problem his state is trying to solve.

Dear Governor Bill Haslam:

It's me, Melissa. I understand that the magnitude of the crisis facing your state and how daunting it must feel.

Last year, a report found that in Tennessee, babies born addicted to opiate drugs their mothers took during pregnancy was higher than ever before.

But Governor, as you think about what you're going to do with that bill on your desk, please take a moment to consider that punishment is no substitute for protection. Particularly when the threat of that punishment could put the health and well-being of vulnerable people--both the babies and their mothers--at even greater risk.

As you have already no doubt heard from the national medical groups that have weighed in on the bill, this proposal could have the exact opposite effect of its intent of improving health outcomes for babies of drug-addicted mothers. According to a statement released by the American Medical Association:

"Pregnant women will be likely to avoid seeking prenatal or open medical care for fear that their physician's knowledge of substance abuse or other potentially harmful behavior could result in a jail sentence rather than proper medical treatment."

So, Governor, any government intervention to address drug dependency among pregnant women and their children must treat that addiction like what it is--a disease. And helping mothers to battle their disease requires a treatment-based approach that must first do no harm by ensuring they are not deterred from prenatal care that could reduce the effects of addiction on their babies.

Besides, even as a law enforcement measure, this bill is remarkably shortsighted because it targets only those women who used illegal drugs during their pregnancies. Yes, it's true that 30% of mothers of drug-dependent babies born in Tennessee used the illegal drugs specified by the bill. But it's also true that 42% of mothers of those babies used *legal* drugs prescribed to them by a doctor for legitimate treatment. And another 20% used both.

So, not only would your law criminalize only certain types of drug abusers, it would also completely overlook the primary driver of the epidemic of drug-addicted babies in Tennessee. What's more, you already have evidence that criminalizing drug-addicted mothers simply doesn't work.

For years, Tennessee was already allowing women to be charged if their newborns tested positive for drugs. But over the last decade there was nonetheless a tenfold increase in babies in your state born addicted to opiates.

But Governor, here's the good news. You need not look far for an alternate policy approach for your state. After all the very same state legislature that proposed the bill you are currently considering already passed a Safe Harbor law last year that gave mothers addicted to prescription drugs priority in line for treatment programs. And also assured them they wouldn't lose custody of their children if they disclosed their drug use.

So here's a thought: why not instead sign a law that would expand that intervention to include protections for all mothers battling addictions during their pregnancy? I think that would be a much better use of your pen.

Sincerely, Melissa