In a nation that is ever advancing in its ability to treat an increasing array of maladies and issues, there is an atavistic impulse in some quarters to revert to a state of affairs where women are controlled “for their own good”… and the supposed good of their offspring. The legislation coming out of places like my home state of Tennessee, however, tends to be one that focuses on criminalizing results rather than preventing the problems in the first place.
Tennessee Governor Haslam has signed into law a measure making it legal to prosecute women for criminal assault if the woman in question used illegal drugs during a pregnancy and it is judged to have caused harm to the child. He did this in rejection of the advice of virtually every major medical association.
The major problem with this bill is that, instead of trying to resolve or treat the underlying issue of drug abuse in pregnant women (or our population in general), it merely acts as a band-aid on a sucking chest wound. It treats a symptom, rather than addressing the cause, and does it in a way that causes more harm than it cures.
In the conservative mindset (which includes Democrats here, more’s the pity), it’s such a GOOD solution to just lock these women up. Because addiction is a crime, right? We should jail the father too! This will teach him not to have sex with an addict, right? Hell, let’s not stop there. Jail the baby. We are a giant compassionate society based on Jesus, after all. That will certainly help those addicted and damaged children. It won’t relieve the burden on the state for the care of those children who end up in government care as a result, but we’ll have vengeance, and isn’t that more important? Yeah, sure, and I’m Good King Wenceslas.
All this bill does is discourage women who are at risk for injury to the unborn child from seeking help to deal with the threat to their child, for fear that they will be thrown in jail once the child is born. That doesn’t even consider the virtual nonexistence of drug-treatment facilities with child care in the state, or the dearth of programs specifically designed to help pregnant addicts. In a country as advanced as ours, shouldn’t we be encouraging women to seek help, both prenatal and personal, to ensure that they have healthy children?
Instead, we have in this bill another step in the wrong direction. Tennessee is one of the various red states to decline the Medicaid expansion that would help the population that SB 1391 would target the most, leaving most low-income women without access to ANY care, much less addiction treatment. Even worse, the language of the law as it was passed does not allow women to seek methadone or buprenorphine maintenance, recommended treatment for narcotics-addicted pregnant women, even if they seek it after arrest. Pregnant women with addiction to narcotics are recommended to avoid detoxification, since withdrawal can threaten pregnancies.
Drug rehab programs run a tiny fraction of the cost of locking someone up. Add the cost the state spends to take a child into custody, and you have a huge waste of money in going with incarceration over treatment. Given the influence the private corrections company CCA has over the governor they donated to, and their interest in keeping their Tennessee prisons profitable, one can begin to see why this bill was signed.
To top this off, it doesn’t even do a decent job at the bad job it aims to do. It will be very hard to conclusively prove that any damage to a newborn was caused specifically by drug use. There is so little solid evidence that specific drugs cause specific long term problems. Even if a baby tests positive right after birth, it’s often hard to nail down the specific problem that causes poor outcomes. Of course, the acute effects like jitteriness occur. But end results? Defects? Long term harm? The research is scant. That doesn’t even consider the legal drugs that this law doesn’t even touch. Alcohol effects are far more damaging long term than the vast majority of drugs. Hell, seizure drugs have far worse implications than illicit drugs, but you don’t see us sterilizing or locking up epileptics who get pregnant.
In the end, this law is nothing but a boon to a powerful corporate backer, an albatross around the neck of reasonable healthcare choices, and a flag to wave proclaiming “I’m tough on druggies!” to a voting block that values their anger at drug use over a rational means of combating it. The greater shame is that it will likely remain on the books for far longer than any civilized state should allow it… but then again, I am talking about Tennessee, after all.
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