POLITICS
01/11/2016 02:32 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2016

Please, Stop Locking Up Pregnant Women For Using Drugs

"This law is hurting far more people than it could ever help."

There's a growing consensus in the U.S. that drug addiction is a public health issue, and sufferers need treatment, not prison time. But good luck if you are pregnant. 

A short film released Monday shines a light on a recent trend among states to criminally prosecute women for using drugs while pregnant. The video, created by Brave New Films, investigates the effect of "feticide laws" across the country. Originally passed to protect pregnant women from violence, women's health advocates say these laws are now being used to prosecute pregnant women themselves.

In 2014, Tennessee became the first state in the nation to pass a law allowing women to be charged with a crime if their babies are born with symptoms of drug withdrawal. 

The state was responding to a dramatic rise in the number of babies born with "neonatal abstinence syndrome," a group of symptoms that can occur when babies are in withdrawal from exposure to narcotics. Medical professional stress that while babies with NAS may be irritable, the condition is treatable and has not been associated with long-term negative consequences. 

Yet the same cannot be said of Tennessee's law.

Health advocates have reported that women are avoiding critical prenatal care and even leaving the state to give birth because they are afraid of facing arrest and losing custody of their children. While it's not clear exactly how many women have been arrested under the new law, in Shelby County alone, at least 22 women have been prosecuted. 

"This policy has resulted in separating mothers from their children and incarcerating people struggling with drug use instead of ensuring access to effective options for recovery," Allison Glass, state director of Healthy and Free Tennessee, a nonprofit women's advocacy group, said in a press release. "This law is hurting far more people than it could ever help."

Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a nonprofit civil rights group, said that women targeted for arrest for pregnancy-related crimes are disproportionally low-income and African-American. 

"Very few low-income people can afford high-powered attorneys who are going to challenge the charges against them," she said. 

Tennessee's law is due to expire under a sunset provision in 2016, unless lawmakers move to extend it. 

While Tennessee is currently the only state to explicitly criminalize drug use during pregnancy, a lawmaker has proposed similar legislation in Missouri. Other states, such as Alabama and South Carolina, used interpretations of existing laws to prosecute pregnant women who use drugs.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 18 states consider substance abuse during pregnancy to be child abuse under civil child-welfare statutes. 

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Melissa Jeltsen covers domestic violence and other issues related to women's health, safety and security. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.

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