First Arrest Demonstrates Failure of Tennessee’s Fetal Assault Law

Cherisse Scott, SisterReach, Healthy and Free Tennessee, 901-310-5488
Farah Diaz-Tello, Pregnancy Justice, 212-255-9252
Micaela Cadena, Young Women United, 575-644-5830

The following statement can be attributed to Healthcare Not Handcuffs:

As yesterday’s arrest of an East Tennessee mother makes clear, the state’s newly expanded fetal assault law is designed to humiliate and punish, not treat or protect.

This is a law that makes going to term and giving birth the basis for criminal investigation, arrest and public humiliation: local news outlets report that this mother “gave birth to a baby girl on Sunday” and two days later “was arrested and charged with simple assault.”

We believe that it is immoral to treat childbirth as an element of criminal activity. As predicted, we are already receiving reports of women who are paralyzed with fear about whether to seek prenatal care, and seeking out non-licensed drug treatment providers to avoid having a medical record and risking arrest.

Significantly, this first arrest exceeds the scope of the plain language of the law. Proponents of the law claimed its purpose was to address Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) and illegal use of “narcotics” by pregnant women. However, the drug this mother is accused of using is not a narcotic, and there is no NAS that results from exposure to this drug.

In addition, the simple assault law requires that a person cause “bodily injury to another.” According to the news reports there is evidence of exposure to a drug, but absolutely no mention is made of injury to the child. There are many substances and environmental exposures that present risks to pregnant women and the fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses they carry and sustain. While newborns may test positive for those substances, it does not mean they have suffered bodily injury as a result of that exposure.

The law’s supporters also claimed that the fetal assault law would somehow increase access to treatment. There is no indication that any treatment was available or offered in this woman’s case but state money has already been spent arresting, booking and incarcerating her.

As is sadly typical, little has been reported about the life or circumstances of the woman at the center of this story or the suffering her children will experience as a result of this punitive, costly and counterproductive prosecution. We do not believe that addiction defines her or any other person.

This very first application of the law makes clear that it must be repealed.

Women and families who enter into health care at the University of Tennessee Medical Center or any other medical setting should not leave as criminals.

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Healthcare Not Handcuffs is a coalition of organizations (including Healthy and Free Tennessee, SisterReach, Pregnancy Justice and Young Women United) and individuals dedicated to advancing policies that support, rather than punish, pregnant women and their families.