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Tennessee Lawmakers Discontinue Controversial Fetal Assault Law

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Tennessee Lawmakers Discontinue Controversial Fetal Assault Law

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Tennessee Lawmakers Discontinue Controversial Fetal Assault Law

Tennessee Lawmakers Discontinue Controversial Fetal Assault Law

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A small but pivotal group of Tennessee representatives voted Tuesday to discontinue one of the state's most divisive criminal laws. Known as "fetal assault," the measure empowered prosecutors to arrest women who abuse heroin or pain pills during pregnancy, if their babies were born dependent.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A one-of-a-kind statute that criminalized drug use by pregnant women is now on track to expire in Tennessee. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports that the so-called fetal assault law didn't work as planned.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: This law was controversial from the outset, so it was given a two-year trial phase, and the first required renewal vote was from a legislative committee chaired by Republican Andrew Farmer of East Tennessee. He said he's just heard too many instances of addicted women scared away from prenatal care because they feared that might land them in jail.

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ANDREW FARMER: I just think that they will be held accountable. We've just got to provide the help because right now they're being held accountable there, but they're just not being provided the help that they need.

TERRI LYNN WEAVER: Well, I guess that's where we'll disagree.

B. FARMER: That's State Representative Terri Lynn Weaver. She sponsored this fetal assault law which has attracted international criticism from civil rights groups. The goal was to lower the number of babies born having to endure painful drug withdrawals just like their mothers would if they stopped using heroin or abusing opioids.

The technical term is neonatal abstinence syndrome, but the numbers haven't budged from the record highs. There are anecdotes about the upsides. LaToni Lester of Memphis gave birth to a drug-dependent baby. She was asked during legislative hearings if she would have sought treatment without the law's threat of jail time.

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LATONI LESTER: No. I'm very thankful for the program.

B. FARMER: But on a broader level, doctors and even some law enforcement officials say the measure had unintended consequences. Judge Duane Sloan runs a drug court in part of the state experiencing one of the nation's highest concentrations of drug-dependent births.

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DUANE SLONE: And if this is going to be a crime, it ought to be a crime. Let’s not make it a class-A misdemeanor. Let's call it at least a C-felony. But if we’re going to recognize addiction for what it is as a disease, let's treat that.

B. FARMER: It appears the addiction side of the argument will win the day. This week, a legislative committee voted down Tennessee's fetal assault law, meaning it will go off the books this summer. During the same hearing, lawmakers discussed adding millions of dollars for drug treatment. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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