Lawmakers in Tennessee are currently considering two proposals that would result in the arrest and criminal prosecution of pregnant women found using drugs.
"While nobody wants to see a mom behind bars, we need to help them see the seriousness behind the offense and help them get the help they need," said HB 1295 co-sponsor Rep. Roger Kane, a Republican from Knoxville.
This bill is the latest attempt by lawmakers to deal with the rising number of Tennessee children born addicted to prescription drugs.
The proposal states that "a mother can be prosecuted for an assaultive offense or homicide if she illegally takes a narcotic drug while pregnant and the child is born addicted, is harmed, or dies because of the drug."
A former nurse in a Tennessee prison, Jill Hamon believes this measure would hold women accountable.
"There aren't any laws that currently defend an unborn child concerning this issue. Addicts often don't care if there is a helpless child growing in their womb or not-they will do anything to get their drugs. And the reason they don't care is because there are no legal ramifications. In order to insure that the child is protected, mothers need to be held accountable for the way they treat their bodies during pregnancy. "
However, opponents of this proposal believe if passed, the law would harm both the mother and child in the long run.
"These women need supportive programs. Punitive measures will only make women not seek prenatal care. They will lie to their doctors [about their drug use], and it could lead to unwanted abortions by women who are afraid of getting prosecuted and convicted," Allison Glass, the statewide organizer for Healthy and Free Tennessee, told the Memphis Flyer.
While previous cases have ruled criminal prosecution of pregnant women for the effects of their drug use on their fetuses as impermissible, Tennessee lawmakers believe this law is becoming increasingly necessary for the state.
According to the Tennessee Health Department, more than 1,000 babies over the past two years born dependent on drugs - often painkillers that cause seizures, vomiting and hyperactivity. These numbers have increased tenfold over the past decade. Now, 6.5 of every 1,000 births are infants suffering from what doctors call neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS.
Lawmakers are currently deciding how to appropriately word the proposal to pacify opponents. "There is absolutely no intent on simply trying to incarcerate [the women]," says Democratic Senator "But some women's groups were afraid, even with the drug court's record, that someone will use this as some kind of stick against pregnant women."
However, Hamon says something needs to change very soon.
"This is clearly a significant problem in our state, a problem that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. These unborn, helpless children need a voice-they need protection from our government."