Tennessee Fetal Assault Law Defeated in Committee

HB 1660, sponsored by Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster), would have made permanent the Fetal Assault Law that was passed in 2014 in Tennessee.

Gov. Bill Haslam (R) signed the bill into law on April 29, 2014, after it was passed by wide margins in both the GOP-majority house and state senate. GovernorBillHaslam / YouTube

A Tennessee bill that would have extended a law criminalizing pregnant people struggling with drug dependency was defeated after testimony from physicians and those affected by the policy.

HB 1660, sponsored by Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster), would have made permanent the Fetal Assault Law that was passed in 2014 in Tennessee.

The bill would have deleted the July 1 termination date for legislation permitting the prosecution of a pregnant person for assault of a fetus based on that person’s illegal use of narcotic drugs while pregnant. The temporary law also created the affirmative defense that the pregnant person completed an addiction recovery program.

This bill would have continued to allow pregnant people to be charged with aggravated assault, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, if they have a pregnancy complication after using illegal drugs.

Gov. Bill Haslam (R) signed the original bill into law on April 29, 2014, after it was passed by wide margins in both the GOP-majority house and state senate.

HB 1660 failed to pass the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Tuesday in a 3-3 vote.

“I really hate to see us throw the baby out with the bathwater on something that’s working,” Weaver told WBIR. “It’s been law for two years. … There is still not enough hardcore evidence to determine the merits of this bill.”

The law was intended to reduce the state’s rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), but critics have charged that it has only increased the hardships for pregnant people dealing with substance abuse.

According to data from East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, there is no evidence that the law has led to a decrease in the number of children born with NAS. There were 265 babies with NAS born at the hospital in 2014, another 323 in 2015, and 72 so far in 2016, reported WATE.

Allison Glass, state director of Healthy and Free Tennessee, said in a statement that the organization was “thrilled” that the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee tabled the bill.

“This would have extended a dangerous and harmful law that has jailed pregnant women and new mothers who have used drugs, instead of working to ensure that they have access to effective treatment options,” Glass said.

Brittany Nicole Hudson, a woman charged under the state’s fetal assault law for taking prescription pills while pregnant, testified before the committee last week and cautioned lawmakers against renewing the law.

Hudson pleaded guilty to child abuse, or simple assault, stemming from an incident in October 2014 where Hudson allegedly gave birth to a baby girl in a car on the side of a road in Blount County, Tennessee.

The Blount County Sheriff’s Office then opened an investigation and determined that Hudson had used illicit drugs during her pregnancy. Hudson received two sentences of 11 months and 29 days of supervised probation under the plea deal.

Hudson told lawmakers that she didn’t seek treatment while she was pregnant because the current law made her afraid of the repercussions.

“The biggest thing is like what people are saying, the lack of treatment,” Hudson said during a March 15 committee hearing, reported WBIR. “Where are you sending these pregnant women? If you’re going to put a law in place at least have somewhere for them to go. There is none. There’s no places. We’re a liability.”

Rep. Andrew Farmer (R-Sevierville) cited testimony of those affected by the law as the reason he voted against the bill. “Both the young ladies that stood there made the comment that they were afraid to seek treatment, and that’s why they didn’t,” Farmer said, reported Nashville Public Radio.

Dr. Charles Robert Harmuth testified against the measure because of his personal experience with painkiller addiction.

“We are talking about a disease defined by the federal government. I am a victim of this disease. Many, many women are a victim of this disease,” Harmuth said, reported WATE. “I beg this committee to look at prevention and treatment as … opposed to punitive actions and possible incarceration.”

In a last-minute bid to pass the bill, lawmakers attempted to include an amendment that would only charge those who tested positive for drugs after 25 weeks of pregnancy and were not under the care of a doctor.

Rep. William Lamberth (R-Cottontown) said the language of the bill was changed because proponents of the bill were concerned patients were having abortions to avoid criminal prosecution.

“It has been amended to specifically allow our law enforcement to prosecute the worst of the worst, those that would use illegal drugs days before their children are born,” Lamberth said during the committee hearing, reported WATE.

“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,” Healthy and Free Tennessee’s Glass said. “We should never put our criminal justice system in the position of creating health policy.”