Bill to criminally charge mothers who use drugs while pregnant proposed in Tennessee

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Tennessee lawmakers are considering a bill that could punish women for using illegal drugs while pregnant.

The bill, Tennessee House Bill 1168, would allow prosecutors to charge women with assault if the baby is harmed because of drug use. This prosecution is only possible if the child is born with a related health issue or addicted to drugs.

Stacey Matthews, a mother who was addicted to drugs and alcohol while pregnant 15 years ago, said she doesn't think the bill would do much good.

"I struggled with just about anything I could get my hands on," she said. "It had a hold of me."

Thankfully, her daughter was born healthy. While Matthews said she regrets what she did, she doesn't think prosecuting women is the way to fix the problem.

"You know when you're in addiction, you're already feeling outcast, and so for someone to judge you and try to punish you for it when they get out, it's just going to make them do it worse," Matthews said.

Women could avoid a criminal charge under this bill if they enroll in a treatment program while they are still pregnant.

The state legislature passed a similar bill in 2014 on a trial basis, but that bill gave women a chance to go to treatment after the child was born.

Dr. Ted Bender, CEO of Turning Point, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Southaven, said he doesn't agree with prosecuting women. He would prefer a mandated treatment.

"I think that that's a much better option," Bender said.

Matthews is now a recovery coach at Turning Point. She said compassion makes all the difference.

"Just being able to relate and have somebody understand you, that's all I wanted was for somebody to understand me," she said.

The bill is making its way through the house with a companion bill in the senate.

The Shelby County District Attorney's Office said the county would offer a treatment program if the bill passes.

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