NASHVILLE (WATE) – A law that criminalizes women who give birth to drug dependent babies will sunset July 1.
An amendment to extend the law failed to pass in a Criminal Justice Subcommittee, receiving three votes in favor and three votes against the proposal. The fetal assault law criminalizes mothers who use illegal narcotic drugs while pregnant and do not seek treatment.
The failed amendment would have not only extended the law, but also limited it to only apply after 25 weeks of pregnancy. Tennessee Representative William Lamberth said the language of the bill was changed to 25 weeks because proponents of the bill were concerned women were having abortions to avoid criminal prosecution.
“It has been amended to specifically allow our law enforcement to prosecute the worst of the worst, those that would use illegal drugs days before their children are born,” said Lamberth during the committee hearing Tuesday.
An East Tennessee mother traveled spoke to the committee last week, sharing her argument as to why the law should go away. Brittany Hudson was one of the first to be charged under the law and told lawmakers she did not think extra jail time would help addicts get clean. She said the current law prevented pregnant women from seeking prenatal care.
Previous Story: Knoxville mother fighting proposal to extend fetal assault law
East Tennessee district attorney defends fetal assault law
During Tuesday’s hearing District 1 District Attorney Tony Clark spoke to the Criminal Justice Subcommittee in support of continuing the legislation. “I’m out there every single day in my office, East Tennessee, along with Sullivan County leads this state in drug dependent babies,” said Clark. “We cannot let this bill die.”
According to the Tennessee Department of Health, there were 975 cases of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome reported in 2015. In 2015, 42% of those cases were reported in East Tennessee.
Clark said there is no argument that women are having abortions because of the fetal assault law. He said he doesn’t think addicts are thinking that far ahead.
“This bill deals with the illegal obtaining of drugs,” said Clark. “That in itself could be a felony. A woman who goes out and will buy drugs, use heroin, use crack cocaine, maybe commit a felony… but the argument is that she may have an abortion because of a misdemeanor I just don’t think is valid.”
The district attorney said he has talked and counseled pregnant women who had taken drugs in his district and has only had one woman go to jail because she refused treatment. He said the rest have gone through treatment and have not been charged.
Coffey County doctor, recovering addict supports decision to let bill sunset
During the hearing Dr. Charles Robert Harmuth, an addiction specialist in Coffee County, spoke in favor of letting the law expire. He said he was an OBGYN doctor in Tennessee for 15 years until was run over by an out of control skier, was prescribed pain medication by his doctor after eight reconstructive surgeries and became addicted to pain killers.
Now, 21 years sober, Dr. Harmuth said he entered the Tennessee Medical Foundation’s recovery program, went away to treatment and was able to get his license back. After he went away from treatment Harmuth said he switched his focus to addiction study and currently works for the Impaired Physicians Council in Nashville.
“I am definitely committed to addiction. I see it as a horrible disease. It destroyed my family through multiple generations and I’m here because of what it is doing to other families here in Tennessee including one of the most innocent members which are the babies,” said Harmuth.
Harmuth said he felt he needed to speak to the committee after talking to women going through recovery in his program. He said during their initial visit he always asks the women about their previous medical history including pregnancies, full-term deliveries, miscarriages and abortions.
“In my practice, there has been an uptick in the number of therapeutic abortions since 2014. My thought, based on my practice, and also what I hear in AA and NA meetings which I attend regularly is that many women are concerned about one, the birth defects that occur in the first trimester,” said Harmuth. Siting a 2011 study in the American Journal of OBGYN that looked at 10,000 babies, he said the study found that the chances of a baby getting a cardiac defect doubled if the mother used opioids in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.
Also siting Tennessee Department of Health statistics on Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, Dr. Harmuth said there has been an uptick in both women who delivered drug dependent babies who had no or late prenatal care from 2013-2014. In 2013, there were 50.6 percent of women who delivered drug dependent babies with no or late prenatal care, versus 53.3 percent in 2014. What’s more, Doctor Harmuth said infant mortality increased for the first time in a decade.
“Coincidence? Math error? Serendipity? I’m not making a comment, I’m just saying there was an increase of a point 10 percent in infant mortality in 2014,” said Harmuth. “”Another thing that is amazing to me is home births. If you’re a using addict, you don’t want to be in the system and you want to continue using, because that’s your number one goal in life, you’re going to deliver at home.”
Home and out-of-state births went up tremendously in Tennessee, according to Dr. Harmuth. He said there were 700 out-of-state births in 2013 and 816 in 2014.
The doctor also said in his practice and at meetings, women have also discussed having abortions because they are afraid of being in prosecuted. He said women that are using and are pregnant live in the shadows where he practices.
“They are in the closet and my feeling today is that this bill is not going to give them the freedom, the sense of relaxation and the trust in the system to come out of the shadows,” said Harmuth. “The American Disabilities Act of 1992 classified opiate addiction as a disease. We are talking about a disease defined by the federal government. I am a victim of this disease. Many, many women are a victim of this disease. I beg this committee to look at prevention and treatment as a opposed to punitive actions and possible incarceration.”
After his testimony, Representative William Lamberth, who supported the amendment criticized Harmuth. He said the numbers are correct, but the doctor is only looking at a one year snapshot of data and that is not enough to draw any conclusions.
“It’s too early to be able to decide of those numbers are caused by this bill,” said Lamberth. “And in fact we have seen a significant uptick in narcotics use in this state and I have seen some studies that have said that it has gone up by 200 or 300 percent.”
In the case, Lamberth said the numbers would show an uptick because there are new addicts. He said the best way to determine if the bill affected prenatal care is for it to exist for longer so they can study if the law has been beneficial or harmful. Harmuth agreed with Lamberth about the lack of data, but said he was “concerned about that kind of study,” because they could be harmful to babies.
“I have a major issue with House Bill 1660. I feel like it needs to sunset. I am all for treatment as a result to punitive measures,” said Harmuth. “With me being in recovery Tennessee Medical Foundation, the Tennessee Medical Board gave me a second chance and I firmly believe these addicted moms need a second chances, American was built on second chances and I think this is what recovery is about.”
Renaissance Recovery in Knoxville offers resources for mothers and their babies born drug dependent. Contact them at (865) 474-1299.