Editorial: Law that would jail mothers of drug-addicted newborns nears passage

Apr. 10, 2014 @ 11:04 PM

On the surface, Tennessee House Bill 1295 looks like a winner.

The bill, which has now passed both the state House and Senate, provides “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.” It awaits only the governor’s signature to become law.

So, protecting an innocent child from their mother’s addiction, what’s not to like?

Several things, potentially.

For one, what if that child is abandoned after a clandestine birth, just to avoid possible jail time? Even worse, what if he or she is aborted to keep mom out of the slammer? That’s a legal option addicted mothers in our state would have.

Addicts aren’t known for their sparkling decision-making prowess, so why would anyone be surprised if tragedies like that occur on a regular basis simply to protect a mother from prosecution?

Another real concern is that a drug-affected newborn will now have a parent involved in the criminal justice system. Assuming the mother still has custody of the child — which could be a stretch — she’ll also have a hard time finding or keeping work with a felony charge hanging over her head, which might make a rough home life even tougher for the baby.

Before anyone thinks we’re advocating a free pass for the mother, we’re not. We’re simply raising questions about whether the proposed law will actually persuade mothers to be more responsible to their unborn child.

In many cases a drug addict has shown a penchant for breaking the law. It’s unlikely a new law will make her break the habit. 

According to The Tennessean, Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, the bill’s sponsor, has said the law would give prosecutors a “velvet hammer” urging drug-using mothers to come forward for addiction treatment or face jail time.

Of course, that also assumes addicts will make a rational decision and force themselves into a recovery program, essentially admitting their guilt before the child’s birth.

One positive amendment did come forward on the law, which allows a mother to mount a defense against prosectution if she has “actively enrolled in an addiction recovery program before the child is born, remained in the program after delivery, and successfully completed the program, regardless of whether the child was born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug.”

There’s no question an unborn child needs protection from a drug-abusing parent, but how to go about protecting the child is a tricky subject. Simply threatening jail time for their drug-addicted mothers probably isn’t the final answer.