Governor Bill Haslam chose not to pick up his veto pen and instead has signed into law a bill that would punish pregnant women who refuse to stop using illegal drugs. The measure is meant to drive down the number of newborns who have to endure withdrawal symptoms.
Haslam took all the time he had and ultimately signed off after extensive talks with mental health experts and district attorneys.
“They’re the ones that are actually on the front lines of this,” Haslam said Tuesday morning. “They’re the ones – particularly the DA’s – who will have the prosecutorial discretion involved.”
Under the law, a woman can charged with misdemeanor assault, which could include jail time. Sponsors of the proposal were hoping it would drive pregnant women to seek help to get off of illegal narcotics, but opponents of the law say it will do just the opposite.
Governor Haslam received thousands of signatures encouragement him to veto the bill. He says in a statement he understands those concerns, which is why he’ll monitor the impact of the law. One of the changes his administration pushed for during the legislative process requires the legislature to review the law after two years.
Tennessee’s governor says a bill that could land a pregnant woman in jail for using illegal drugs may be less forgiving than he first thought.
After the proposal passed both chambers of the legislature, Governor Bill Haslam said he was comfortable with the final language. Health officials within his administration had worked with the sponsors to temper some of the punitive parts of the bill, which included the possibility of murder charges if a drug-dependent baby died.
State lawmakers have been looking for some way to drive down the number of cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome, which has been on the rise in Tennessee, in large part as a result of the legal use of prescription pain killers.
At first, Haslam thought that a woman with a drug problem always had a way out – that if she had a baby with withdrawal symptoms, she could still get treatment and avoid jail time. Tuesday morning, he said he’s not so sure.
“One of the things we were a little uncertain about was when could the mother go back and say I do have this issue, now I want to be eligible, she could kind of raise her hand and volunteer for treatment on their own before the judicial system got involved,” Haslam said Tuesday morning.
Time is running out for Haslam to issue a veto. He had 10 business days after receiving the legislation. A spokesperson says to expect a statement Tuesday afternoon.
Haslam has received petitions from the ACLU and women’s health organizations who say criminalizing drug abuse while pregnant will drive those women away form seeking prenatal care.
The governor says his office has been combing the legislation “line by line” and talking to experts to get their opinion of what the bill would do if signed into law.
“A lot of times you all ask me after a bill passes will you sign it or not,” he said to reporters gathered at the state capitol. “We always say we want to wait and see the bill. Often times, what gets passed is different from what got discussed along the way.”
Hear what the governor said when asked by WPLN if something has changed: