In a win for reproductive justice advocates, a Tennessee bill that would have permanently extended the state’s dangerous “Fetal Assault Law” was defeated in a 3-3 committee vote on Tuesday. The law will now sunset on July 1st.
The 2014 law criminalizes pregnant women and new mothers struggling with drug dependence, allowing prosecutors to charge them with aggravated assault if they experience a complication in their pregnancy. If found guilty, women could face up to 15 years in prison and lose their parental rights indefinitely.
“The legacy of this law and its companion bills has created a hostile healthcare environment for pregnant mothers who had become terrified to seek prenatal care because of this legislation. The punitive nature of this legislation also forced mothers to consider having abortions for wanted pregnancies to avoid jail time,” said Cherisse Scott, CEO of a Memphis-based reproductive justice organization SisterReach. “Because of the defeat of this law, pregnant mothers struggling with addiction have a better chance of maintaining custody of their children while they seek out rehabilitation and Tennessee families have a fighting chance of staying together.”
“The defeat of this bill is a huge victory not just for Tennessee, but we hope that it will also serve as a signal to the other states that are considering advancing their own bills that replicate this harmful policy,” said Allison Glass, state director of Healthy and Free Tennessee. “We should never put our criminal justice system in the position of creating health policy.”
During the hearings on the bill to extend the 2014 law, women and doctors testified about its negative effects. Charles Harmuth, an addiction specialist and former OB-GYN, testified that data from the year after the law took effect show an increase in the number of drug-dependent pregnant women who did not access prenatal care. A woman who had been charged under the law also testified that it did not encourage people to seek treatment, but rather instilled fear and discouraged those wanting to receive prenatal care.
Media Resources: The Establishment 3/7/16; SisterReach Press Release 3/23/16; Healthy and Free Tennessee 3/22/16; WATE 3/22/16