Tennessee lawmakers to vote on fetal assault bill

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KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Tennessee lawmakers will consider a bill Tuesday that would criminalize women who take illegal drugs during pregnancy.Previous Story:Knoxville mother fighting proposal to extend fetal assault law

Brittany Hudson shared her story with the lawmakers last week in Knoxville. She was one of the first to be charged under the law and believes jail time will not help addicts get clean. Hudson says the current law is preventing pregnant women from seeking prenatal care.

Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver says this law was drafted to create accountability, especially for women who normally wouldn’t go for help. Rep. Weaver adds this is not a perfect piece of legislation.

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome is what everyone is trying to prevent – babies born drug dependent.

“We all want healthy moms and healthy babies,” said Karen Pershing with the Metro Drug Coalition.

There’s a difference in opinion on how to go about accomplishing that through the fetal assault law.

“Is it the fix all, end all? Absolutely not,” said Weaver.

House Bill 1660 has been around since July 2014, but there’s a clause saying it could end this July. The Metro Drug Coalition believes the law is more reactive than proactive and there are gaps in care.

“We have a limited number of detoxification beds in our area and those have not expanded,” said Pershing.

To make up the difference, Pershing says MDC has been working with other health organizations to provide long-acting forms of contraception for high risk women.

“Most of these babies are unplanned pregnancies,” said Pershing.

Even though care may be falling short in East Tennessee, some lawmakers say that’s no reason to nix it.

“Do we throw away a piece of legislation that is helping some because we don’t have enough? Or do we work at getting enough and opening up more venues, and getting more drug courts, and churches, and communities involved to help in this epidemic?” said  Weaver.

This is a topic close to Circuit Court Judge Duane Slone’s heart. While no fetal assault cases have come through his courtroom, his adopted son was born drug dependent.

“He was designated hard to wean, so he was hospitalized 52 days. His first 52 days of life,” said Judge Slone.

That is why he thinks there’s a need for everyone to come together “and form a coalition that recognizes criminal justice needs to be at the table, at the same time everyone else, mental health treatment, health care treatment,” said Judge Slone.

In the meantime many are waiting for more data and funding for resources.

“It’ll help a small pocket of women but regardless if it helps one little baby and one mother, it’s worth going through the efforts of this legislation,” said Representative Weaver.

East Tennessee Children’s Hospital says based on their data, they say they’re not seeing a correlation between the numbers of drug dependent babies and this law. Instead, ETCH says they’re seeing more babies whose mothers didn’t receive prenatal care.

In 2014, 265 babies had Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome or NAS. Nine of them were admitted without prenatal care. In 2015, there were 323 NAS babies of which 43 without prenatal care, and so far in 2016 there have been 72 NAS babies, 13 of which also with no prenatal care.

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