Today, Tennessee lawmakers can make a wrong against drug addicted mothers right by not reauthorizing a law that criminally penalizes them. There are better ways to create healthy families.

Since when is being pregnant a crime? Since Tennessee passed a law making the use of illicit substances while pregnant — as if that’s a solution promoting healthy babies and stable families.
On Tuesday, the Tennessee Legislature will get a chance to fix that faulty law whose only impact is punishing women struggling through pregnancy while dealing with the condition called “addiction.” Legislators are expected to vote on whether HB1600, a 2014 law that effectively prosecutes a woman for using drugs in her pregnancy, should become permanent.
Reproductive justice advocates across the country will be watching. We’ve taken note of the pernicious trend of states to copycat the passage of regressive laws that often represent battle lines in the culture wars more than policies that support marginalized communities.
At New Mexico’s Young Women United (YWU), a reproductive justice organizing and policy project, we, like many health care providers and advocates across the country, are working to reframe addiction as a healthcare issue, not a crime, to better address root causes of addiction.
Growing up in New Mexico, a state with one of the highest substance use rates in the nation, I have experienced the generational impact of addiction. Families who have experienced the brunt of addiction understand how further criminalization pushes pregnant women farther into the shadows and away from the health care resources they need. The truth is, in the midst of addiction, families who desperately need health care and treatment are too often confronted with the stigma of using and being criminalized, a potential life-long stigma and barrier to work and long-term health.
HB 1600 was implemented in response to a 98 percent increase of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) cases from 2008 and 2011. As widely reported, this legislation has not been to be effective in actually reducing NAS in Tennessee. While the intention of bill sponsors to improve infant health in Tennessee is appreciated, this legislation continues to be an off-the-mark solution to a problem that is not adequately understood.
For example, it is crucial to study factors shaping the situation when approaching a complex public health issue like this. In New Mexico, Young Women United collaborated with Department of Health researchers who oversee Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS), a data collection project of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Our statewide survey now includes a question about substance use in pregnancy. Because this is an anonymous survey, women have the opportunity to respond honestly about different facets of their lives during pregnancy. In our state, policymakers will have an opportunity to better understand addiction in pregnancy and, in turn, invest in evidence-based and trauma-informed solutions that support the needs of our families.
Women struggling with addiction in different stages of pregnancy and parenting often hear they “must love drugs more than their kids,” or that “if they really loved their kids, they would just stop using.” Many inaccurately assume drug-addicted women only think of themselves. I can attest that it has been a great honor to organize alongside women who have been using and pregnant at the same time because these assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth.
Many drug-addicted women have opened up and shared that being pregnant while using was the most terrifying time in their life. Having lived through homelessness, violence, working in the sex economy or serving time in prison, nothing compares to the fear of being discovered using while pregnant.
What the rest of us — and Tennessee lawmakers — need to understand is these women’s fears are based out of concern for the health of their baby and the threat of losing their children. Failing to allow this bill to “sunset,” or go away, threatens to push pregnant women farther into the shadows and away from prenatal care and treatment.
Moreover, while HB 1600 mandates convicted women to “complete an addiction recovery program,” it ignores the lack of available services and the fact that recovery is a lifelong journey, not something you can “complete” and walk away from. This law, however, is something legislators can certainly walk away from, toward evidenced-based therapies that actually bring women and families closer to health care and the resources they truly need.
This dangerous piece of legislation is set to sunset, or expire, on July 1. By all means, let it.