There are laws that are enacted not to help people, but to punish. Some things just seem so abhorrent when viewed from an outsider perspective that it is hard to ever justify them.
Laws to punish these things feel justifiable and right. When closely looking at the first-hand outcomes, these laws are less reasonable. Opioid abuse during pregnancy is one of these things.
Opioid abuse in the United States has increased exponentially over recent years and is only getting worse. The CDC reports that opioid abuse has increased four times from 1999 to 2014. The opioid epidemic needs to be addressed in a different way than it is currently. It must be addressed with the compassion and understanding that addiction is a disease.
Opioid abuse during pregnancy can have many negative effects like lower birth weight, smaller head size and breathing problems. It also increases the likelihood of a baby developing neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) which is a withdrawal syndrome seen usually within 1-10 days after birth. NAS is heartbreaking. Babies born with this can experience things like tremors, seizures, feeding problems and poor temperature regulation.
According to the CDC, the number of infants born with NAS has also increased by four times from 1999 to 2014. Many programs have been introduced and discussed with the goal of limiting NAS prevalence but seem to keep missing the mark.
Tennessee became the first state in the nation to charge addicted pregnant women with assault in 2014 which could have meant jail time or losing custody. The time lapsed for it to be in effect in 2016, and the two year period of its action proved that it is not an approach to be repeated.
The law made it less likely for women to confide in their medical providers and therefore, were not offered the best-targeted care possible. The number of women abusing drugs during pregnancy did not decrease with this law in place, and the outcomes for the babies born from this were worse.
According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the threat and reality of jail time have “proved to be ineffective in reducing the incidences of alcohol and drug abuse” in pregnant women.
In February, a bill was introduced to again punish women addicted to drugs during pregnancy. This new law would include a provision that said a woman who enrolls in and completes an addiction recovery program while pregnant is granted defense against the law.
This seems reasonable. However, the law will still punish drug-addicted mothers and discourage mothers from coming forward to their providers, further endangering that child. No state has had success by enacting this law because factors that may hinder a person from seeking treatment are not considered.
Poorer families may be unable to afford treatment and are, therefore, disproportionately affected by this. Some argue that if they are poor then they can’t afford drugs. This, however, is an oversimplification of what really happens with drug abuse. Drug addiction is a real mental illness that requires actual help to fix. Treatment programs that are accessible to the majority of the population are needed to decrease the prevalence of opioid abuse.
The law should not punish mothers. It should provide funding to programs that could actually help mothers facing drug addiction and not just the people that can afford it. Some states have given pregnant mothers priority to treatment in order to curb the number of cases of NAS and have shown some promising results. It will be just as expensive to incarcerate someone as it will be to rehabilitate them.
The harsh punishment of drug use has shown time and time again that it does nothing to drop the overall prevalence. There have been cities and countries, like Portugal, to decriminalize all drugs so when caught people face fines or treatment programs instead of jail time. Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001 and since the prevalence of drug use has decreased every year. Targeted programs are needed for pregnant women, yes, but there also need to be more extensive programs for everyone. The solution is to show compassion and treat drug use as a mental health issue and not a crime.
The Tennessee legislature needs to look at the evidence of what these laws do instead of following blindly on a principle alone. Research has shown that the best approach to protect children from drug abuse is not the punishment of mothers, but show compassion and offer of help instead. We need better addiction programs that are accessible to the majority of the population in order to stop the opioid epidemic, not more laws punishing a mental illness.