Tennessee has attracted international attention for making it a crime to give birth to a drug-dependent baby. This means women addicted to pain pills or heroin can be charged with assault to a fetus.
After less than two years in effect, the controversial law must be renewed, or it will expire. While the measure has drawn worldwide disdain from women's health and civil liberty advocates, some of the women who’ve been charged say the threat of jail-time was a wake-up call.
“If I didn’t go through what I went through, I’d probably be down that same road right now," says 26-year-old mother Kim Walker of Johnson City. "But now I’m a totally different person. And I’m on the good road, not the bad road.”
Last year, Walker went into labor at home. It’s hard to know whether the drugs she was on had anything to do with this, but the baby came so quickly, she gave birth in her bathroom.
Walker tells the story like it was no big deal. "One push and he was out," she says.
“My husband delivered him. Didn’t know he was drug exposed until we got to the hospital," she says. "When we got to the hospital, they took him straight from my hospital room. I didn’t get to see him, didn’t get to hold him, nothing.”
He spent 28 days in the neonatal intensive care unit, withdrawing from the painkillers Walker was taking illegally.
Walker had to take a drug test, which she failed. Then she was charged with assault. But like most women, she chose treatment in order to avoid conviction.
Rehab was a rocky road. There’s been a relapse along the way. But in late October, Walker gave birth to another son — Jack — this time, drug-free.
A Tactic Discouraged By The Experts
The idea for Tennessee’s fetal assault law didn’t originate from doctors, nurses or social workers. It came from law enforcement and legislators.
In fact, the medical community lined up in resistance, saying punishment is no way to treat addiction — especially when young mothers are singled out.
Lisa Tipton falls somewhere in the middle.
“I don’t feel the law is perfect," she says. "I don’t feel the law is necessarily the solution...but we were absolutely bombarded.”
Tipton runs a non-profit treatment center called Families Free in Johnson City. This part of Northeast Tennessee is the epicenter of the state's — and even the country's — problem with neonatal abstinence syndrome.
The rural region has had — by far — the most cases of NAS, the technical name for when an infant withdraws from opioids. Babies cry until they’re hoarse, scratch themselves and have seizures — sometimes for weeks. At any one time, as many as half the babies in Johnson City's main NICU are going through withdrawals, according to a hospital spokesperson.
Tipton recognizes that Tennessee’s law has a bad rap among women’s health advocates and civil liberty groups. But she says she’s not hearing great alternatives from the naysayers.
“I would really invite them to go in our area, into the trailer parks where they may be living with several family members who also use drugs and sometimes abuse them, and their children as well. To go into the jails and talk to the women whose lives have been destroyed by drugs and whose children are being raised by somebody else," Tipton says. "Help come up with some very real-life and real-world solutions that are going to change the lives of these women.”
It isn't clear the fetal assault law is doing what it was supposed to do.
In the Tri-Cities, more women have been prosecuted with this misdemeanor than anywhere else in the state. Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus, who pushed for the law in the first place, has charged more than 20 women this year. And yet the mountainous region is still home to the largest number of babies being born needing to detox.
State Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Livingston, sponsored the statute. She says it needs more time and should be renewed.
“I’m just going to stand my ground on the fact that I believe wholeheartedly this bill does help and does help these women that are in situations that never would have gotten the help they needed,” she says.
Some women say they were too scared to get prenatal care for fear of going to jail.
Even getting that medical help is tricky. Some OBGYNs prefer drug treatment to come first. And only a handful of treatment centers in the state even accept pregnant women and their added complexities.
"I’m not really sure what I feel about the law right now. I kind of have mixed emotions about it,” says Sabrina Sawyer of Kingsport. Her nine-month-old son was born with drug-dependency and had to spend several days in the NICU. He's happy and healthy now, which brings to light another important point from critics: It's unclear whether there are any long-term health effects from NAS.
Sawyer, who has two other young children, says she didn't know about Tennessee's fetal assault law until a caseworker walked into her hospital room.
“I was terrified. I had never been in any kind of trouble," she says. "It sent me through an emotional mess for a while.”
Sawyer was charged with assault but chose to get treatment and avoid prosecution. While torn about the effectiveness of the law, she also admits she'd likely still be using if going to jail hadn't been a possibility.
The question for Tennessee lawmakers is whether there’s a better way to get more of these recovery stories than threatening to take new mothers from the hospital to jail.