Weaver Unfazed by Reports of Unintended Consequences from Drug-Addicted Newborn Law

The threat of jail time may not be prompting drug-abusing pregnant women to seek addiction treatment, despite that being a central promise made last year by Tennessee advocates of the law.

Doctors and addiction experts who opposed the Volunteer State legislation warned in 2013 that such laws not only disproportionately affect poor women, but would also have a chilling effect on women with drug problems seeking prenatal care.

And according to a recent special report from Equal Voice for America’s Families, a news agency focused on family poverty issues, that’s exactly what’s happened.

“The law is not only incarcerating a handful of new mothers but affecting many more women, as evidenced by months of interviews with women, doctors and health workers. Pregnant women are diving underground in an effort to avoid the fate they’ve seen in mug shots on the local news,” according to the report.

But sponsor Terri Lynn Weaver told TNReport recently that while she’s “sure there are some women who are not going for prenatal care,” she’d say “there are more women going than are not.”

Weaver said the “whole intent” of her legislation was to get help to women who were already breaking the law and would normally not “even think about prenatal, because they don’t think that way.”

To that end, Weaver is looking to expand the law to include methamphetamine this year with HB1340.

The legislation passed the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on a voice vote Tuesday. It’s upper chamber companion, SB586, has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has not been put on notice.

As with last year’s legislation, the bill is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis.

The legislation sunsets in 2016, and the state is still collecting the data on the outcomes for women who are able to receive care, Weaver said. “We’ve not really captured a real snapshot of what that data looks like,” she said.

Bill Dunn, a conservative Knoxville lawmaker who opposed the legislation last year on the grounds of the unintended consequences, likewise said they would be studying the outcomes of the legislation next year.

“It’s going to be hard to be really definite about whether it hurt or helped, but I’ve heard enough stories that it makes me wonder,” Dunn said.

However, Weaver’s legislation to establish a framework to study the effects of her legislation and produce a report to the Senate and House health committees by Jan. 15, 2016, was taken off notice in the House Health Subcommittee this week. Its companion is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee Wednesday.

The Equal Voice group’s report, published in early February, claims at least nine women from around the state — “five Black, four White, all poor” — have been arrested since the law went into effect. And while the law provides a defense for women who enroll in drug treatment programs, the report says many poor mothers have trouble finding treatment.

Equal Voices highlights their points through the stories of a few of these women — including one who gave birth in a car on the roadside to avoid being questioned at the hospital, and one who ultimately took her own life after giving her child up for adoption.

During floor debate last year, Weaver, the House sponsor of the legislation, dismissed concerns that drug-addicted mothers would even consider care for their children. Instead, she argued, most, if not all, of the women who would be affected by her legislation “are ladies who are strung-out on heroin and cocaine, and their only next decision is how to get their next fix.”

Weaver reemphasized that point to TNReport recently, and added someone had to be concerned for the baby’s well-being — the intention of her legislation.

Although admitting she had never been addicted herself, Weaver said she knew most women who were abusing cocaine and heroin — the drugs her proposal specifically dealt with — were very likely unconcerned with anything but facilitating their high.

However, a recent report from the Kingsport Times-News notes that prescription medication accounts for more than half of the cases of drug-addicted newborns.

The original measure, SB1321/HB1295 in the 108th General Assembly, last year passed the Senate on a vote of 26 to 7, and the House on a vote of 64 to 30.

In the House, 11 Republicans joined 19 Democrats to vote against the measure, notably including the leaders of both parties — Republican Leader Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga and Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley.

In the Senate, there were no Democrats voting against the measure.

While Gov. Bill Haslam intended to sign the bill into law last April, it was one of many pieces of legislation that became law without the governor’s signature last year, due to a “clerical error.

Tennessee was the first state to pass such legislation, but a measure similar to Weaver’s has been introduced in North Carolina this year.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.