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Tenn. Law Targets Pregnant Women Who Are Drug Addicts


The state of Tennessee says the way women behave during pregnancy can be a crime. A state law targets new mothers who are also drug addicts. The law would punish them for the effect on their babies. So let's ask what the real-world effects are. Ari Shapiro, of NPR's All Things Considered, has been reporting from Tennessee. He's in our studios now. Hi, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thanks for joining us. So what's the crime?

SHAPIRO: It's called fetal assault, which is a little misleading because it can't be charged until a baby is actually born. The numbers of babies being born drug-dependent in the United States have skyrocketed. And in Tennessee, the rate is three times the national average. So if a baby is born drug-dependent in Tennessee, mothers can be charged with this crime of fetal assault, can potentially be locked up.

INSKEEP: Is it just the sheer number of babies affected that caused Tennessee to be the state that started on this?

SHAPIRO: The entire state has been focused on this. And the public health system has mobilized to try to dangle a carrot in front of mothers struggling with addiction to try to get them help. The state legislature decided to use the stick approach. So here's a lawmaker named Terri Lynn Weaver, who pushed for this bill and insists this is about accountability. If a mother harms a child, she should be held accountable. She said, look, I used to be a smoker.

TERRI LYNN WEAVER: When I found out that I was with child, I took that pack of cigarettes and flushed them down the toilet because I knew it wasn't just about me anymore. It was about another individual. And that's what I'm hoping these women will see it as.

SHAPIRO: But of course, the big differences is that if pregnant women drink or smoke, it might harm the baby, but they're not going to go to jail for it.


SHAPIRO: If they do these harmful prescription drugs, they very well may go to jail.

INSKEEP: Some people are going to ask, when they hear a crime called fetal assault, if this factors some way into the abortion debate.

SHAPIRO: You know, I went to Tennessee thinking the opponents of the law would say, this is part of a right-to-life agenda. Nobody said that to me. And in fact, I think the term fetal assault might actually be a little misleading. Although it is a highly controversial law, that controversy in the debate does not seem to be revolving around these personhood issues that we're hearing in the abortion debate.

INSKEEP: Well, what does it mean then for the mothers, for the women affected here?

SHAPIRO: There's been a fair amount of reporting on this law. And amazingly, you almost never hear from the mothers. And we talked to a lot of them. We went to groups that are trying to help these mothers struggling with addiction. And we heard contradictory things from them. Some women told us, yes, this law is scaring me into getting help. For example, here's a woman named Jessica Grayson (ph). We met her at a support group called Mothers and Infants Sober Together.

JESSICA GRAYSON: I actually was charged with the law for having hydrocodone in my system while I was pregnant. And they have put me on probation for that. And I asked my lawyer to come into this program.

SHAPIRO: On the other hand, there were also mothers who said this law scared them away from getting prenatal care or help with their addiction problems. This is a woman named Brittany Crowe (ph).

BRITTANY CROWE: I guess I could have gone into, you know, a baby doctor at first. But I was scared because of the new law.

SHAPIRO: And that's the real fear that medical professionals, social workers and others have, is that people are not going to get the kind of help they need because they'll be afraid of being sent to prison and losing their child.

INSKEEP: What else do doctors think?

SHAPIRO: The medical community and addiction specialists have real concerns about this. They see it as a criminal justice fix to a public health problem. We met with a woman named Jessica Young, who's an OB-GYN in Nashville. She specializes in addiction and pregnancy.

JESSICA YOUNG: This law has primarily impacted my patients through fear. So now they are making health care choices out of fear rather than out of science or what is medically best for them and their babies' health.

SHAPIRO: And Steve, in the year and half or so that this law has been in effect, the number of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome - babies born drug-dependent - has not gone down. We're going to explore all these issues in much more depth over the next few days on All Things Considered.

INSKEEP: Ari, we'll be listening. Thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ari Shapiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.