Tuesday, April 22, 2014
The bill, SB 1391, would impose criminal penalties on mothers of newborns who have been exposed to addictive illegal or prescription drugs in utero. While the bill appears race-neutral, prosecutors and judges will wield the law against Black women more so than white women, based on a long tradition of deeply embedded racial stereotypes about Black motherhood. Should Gov. Haslam ignore the growing outcry against SB 1391 from pro-choice and anti-choice advocates alike, the law would likely lead to Black women being thrown in jail for up to 15 years for aggravated assault should they choose to carry a pregnancy to term while struggling with an addiction to illegal narcotics.
SB 1391 is an attempt by the Tennessee legislature to reduce the number of children born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, a group of problems that occur in newborns who are exposed to addictive illegal or prescription drugs in utero. Current law in Tennessee prevents pregnant women from being prosecuted for a newborn child’s addiction or birth defect resulting from drug use during pregnancy. Indeed, just last year, Gov. Haslam signed into law the Safe Harbor Act, a law meant to help drug-addicted pregnant women get treatment and prenatal care so they can beat their addictions, give birth to healthy newborns, and retain their parental rights. SB 1391 would change that by criminalizing women who suffer from drug addiction. And given the stereotypes that pervade about Black motherhood, that change will hurt Black women the most.