Dr. Stephen Patrick, right, and Michael Botticelli, deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, take a close look at a baby inside the NICU on Monday while touring the Monroe Carell Jr. Childrenā??s Hospital at Vanderbilt University. / Jae S. Lee, The Tennessean
Tennessee women who use drugs while pregnant can be criminally charged for harm done to their infants beginning July 1.
Gov. Bill Haslam signed the legislation Tuesday after "extensive conversations with experts including substance abuse, mental health, health and law enforcement officials," he wrote in a statement. "The intent of this bill is to give law enforcement and district attorneys a tool to address illicit drug use among pregnant women through treatment programs."
The governor's decision comes after a week of mounting nationwide opposition from civil and reproductive rights groups. They argued that criminalization would drive vulnerable women away from drug addiction treatment.
"I understand the concerns about this bill, and I will be monitoring the impact of the law through regular updates with the court system and health professionals," Haslam wrote.
The law brings back criminalization, which lawmakers had eliminated two years ago as the state moved toward programs that incentivize expecting mothers to get into treatment.
Tennessee officials have wrestled with what to do about the growing numbers of infants born dependent on drugs and who often suffer from a condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome.
The legislation would allow mothers to avoid criminal charges if they get into one of the state's few treatment programs. Haslam said he wants doctors to encourage women to get into treatment before delivering their babies so they can avoid charges.
The proposal also includes an unusual sunset provision, which means the criminal penalty will be in effect until 2016. At that time, lawmakers will have to revisit the issue.
Opponents, including five national medical organizations and local doctors who treat pregnant women, worry that criminalization will scare women away from treatment and reverse last year's Safe Harbor Act, which protected the custody rights of mothers and gave them priority placement into the state's limited number of treatment programs.
The director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee - joined by the national ACLU - said she was "extremely disappointed" by the governor's decision.
"A pregnant woman struggling with drug or alcohol dependency will now be deterred from seeking the prenatal care she needs," said Hedy Weinberg to The Tennessean.
Abuse of prescription painkillers has fueled a tenfold increase in such births in the past decade, sending health officials scrambling. There were 921 drug-dependent births in 2013 and 253 so far this year.
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