There's a growing consensus in the U.S. that drug addiction is a public health issue, and sufferers need treatment, not prison time. But good luck if you are pregnant.
A short film released Monday shines a light on a recent trend among states to criminally prosecute women for using drugs while pregnant. The video, created by Brave New Films, investigates the effect of "feticide laws" across the country. Originally passed to protect pregnant women from violence, women's health advocates say these laws are now being used to prosecute pregnant women themselves.
In 2014, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to pass a law allowing women to be charged with a crime if their babies are born with symptoms of drug withdrawal.
The state was responding to a dramatic rise in the number of babies born with "neonatal abstinence syndrome," a group of symptoms that can occur when babies are in withdrawal from exposure to narcotics. Medical professional stress that while babies with NAS may be irritable, the condition is treatable and has not been associated with long-term negative consequences.
Yet the same cannot be said of Tennessee's law.
Health advocates have reported that women are avoiding critical prenatal care and even leaving the state to give birth because they are afraid of facing arrest and losing custody of their children. While it's not clear exactly how many women have been arrested under the new law, in Shelby County alone, at least 22 women have been prosecuted.
"This policy has resulted in separating mothers from their children and incarcerating people struggling with drug use instead of ensuring access to effective options for recovery," Allison Glass, state director of Healthy and Free Tennessee, a nonprofit women's advocacy group, said in a press release. "This law is hurting far more people than it could ever help."
Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a nonprofit civil rights group, said that women targeted for arrest for pregnancy-related crimes are disproportionally low-income and African-American.
"Very few low-income people can afford high-powered attorneys who are going to challenge the charges against them," she said.
Tennessee's law is due to expire under a sunset provision in 2016, unless lawmakers move to extend it.
While Tennessee is currently the only state to explicitly criminalize drug use during pregnancy, a lawmaker has proposed similar legislation in Missouri. Other states, such as Alabama and South Carolina, used interpretations of existing laws to prosecute pregnant women who use drugs.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 18 states consider substance abuse during pregnancy to be child abuse under civil child-welfare statutes.
- Listen To Women Describe The Horror Of Being Shackled While Pregnant
- 'Vagina Monologues' Production Reminds Female Inmates They Aren't Forgotten
- Inside A Notorious Women's Prison Before Its Revolutionary Makeover
- A Cop Faces Charges Of Serial Rape, Yet His 13 Black Accusers Are On Trial
- We're Missing The Big Picture On Mass Shootings
- Why Didn't You Just Leave? Six Domestic Violence Survivors Explain Why It's Never That Simple
- Men Offer Abhorrent Excuses For Killing Women. Don't Repeat Them.
- Why Some Tennessee Women Are Afraid To Give Birth At The Hospital
How to vote
Vote-by-mail ballot request deadline: Varies by state
For the Nov 3 election: States are making it easier for citizens to vote absentee by mail this year due to the coronavirus. Each state has its own rules for mail-in absentee voting. Visit your state election office website to find out if you can vote by mail.Get more informationTrack ballot status
In-person early voting dates: Varies by state
Sometimes circumstances make it hard or impossible for you to vote on Election Day. But your state may let you vote during a designated early voting period. You don't need an excuse to vote early. Visit your state election office website to find out whether they offer early voting.My Election Office
General Election: Nov 3, 2020
Polling hours on Election Day: Varies by state/localityMy Polling Place