Tennessee just became the first state to criminalize women if they use illegal drugs during their pregnancy, and the baby is considered harmed as a result of the drug use. While this might seem like a fantastic idea on the surface (many think that a pregnant woman should obviously know better), it’s actually one of the worst ideas in the long, sad history of bad ideas. An article in Salon discusses how Tennessee’s governor Bill Haslam ignored the advice of doctors, addiction experts and reproductive health groups and signed SB 1391
Why are experts and professionals concerned? They’re worried that this law will disproportionately target poor women, minority women and women in rural areas that don’t have easy access to treatment facilities. They also worry that women will be less likely to seek prenatal care because they’re afraid of being reported and imprisoned for drug use. The truth is that a woman who is using illegal drugs while she’s pregnant needs addiction treatment, not a prison sentence.
That right there is a huge part of the problem with our failed War on Drugs. We have more people in prison now than were incarcerated at the height of Stalin’s gulag archipelago. One of the things mentioned in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book, The Gulag Archipelago, is that people could be arrested for knowing someone who knows someone who worked with someone once who was suspected of some type of espionage. That type of broad interpretation of Russian law following the end of WWII led to throwing hundreds of thousands of people in prison.
Given that, it’s actually quite terrible that our “free” society now has more people incarcerated than Stalin ever did, and that those jailed for drug offenses usually need help, which they don’t get much of in prison. Prison is not what these pregnant women need. Prison is not what any drug addict needs. They need help and they need treatment, both for the addiction and for the underlying problems that led to the addiction the first place.
In fact, according to the Salon article, the founder and president of SisterReach, a reproductive justice group, said:
[box type=”shadow”] “This law separates mothers from their children and is not patient-centered. Tennessee families who are already being hit the hardest by policies such as the failure to expand Medicaid, poverty and a lack of available drug treatment facilities will be most deeply impacted by this bill. Mothers struggling with drug addiction in Shelby County, rural communities throughout Tennessee and poor mothers and their families will be the ones who suffer the effects of this dangerous legislation the most.” [emphasis mine] [/box]
All Tennessee has done with this law is prove that they know squat about the illness that is addiction, and aren’t willing to admit that. With all of the advice the governor received, one has to wonder why he signed it into law, if not to simply prove that he’s tough on drugs. It comes across as though he, and the Tennessee legislature, feel the need to enshrine something “moral” and “pure” into law, and to prove that they’re somehow “better” than everyone else by jailing addicted mothers rather than trying to help them.