Drugs During Pregnancy: What Will The Law Have To Do With It?

Blog Post Contributed by Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC, Special Projects Director @ Addiction Hope, and Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC, President at Addiction Hope

If you have been tuned in to the news this week, you have certainly heard of the controversial measure recently passed in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In an effort to decrease the number of babies who are born drug-dependent, lawmakers are attempting to pass a bill that would criminally charge and prosecute pregnant women whose babies are born addicted to drugs.

This bill is the first of its kind, and if passed, Tennessee would become the first state to effectually criminalize pregnancy-related outcomes. Undoubtedly, this bill has raised criticism from organizations across the nation, including women’s rights advocacy groups and other health organizations. However, according to Senator Todd Gardenhire from Tennessee, who is a co-sponsor of this bill, “Nothing is more cruel that to have a baby being addicted to drugs when it’s born. This is meant to protect the unborn.”

Indeed, babies who are born addicted to drugs begin life with significant disadvantages. Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) is a complex disorder that results in a neonate when drugs and alcohol are abused during pregnancy. NAS involves devastating consequences that transpire as an infant experiences withdrawal from drugs/alcohol consumed by the pregnant mother. Newborns born with NAS are more likely to be born at a low birthweight, prematurely, and with respiratory complications [1] Other complications for babies with NAS include seizures, eating difficulties, and gastrointestinal distress. Additionally, research statistics have shown us that NAS considerably impacts health care costs, with total hospital charges for NAS cases estimated to have increased from $190 million to $720 million between 2000 and 2009 [2].

This proposed legislation from Tennessee lawmakers would essentially press criminal charges against mothers who are found to be abusing drugs or alcohol during their pregnancy. Furthermore, if a baby were to die due to a mother’s drug abuse, the mother can be charged with homicide. Organizations and individuals who oppose this bill are questioning whether this will be an effective tactic in preventing NAS in neonates. Opponents of the bill are concerned that these measures might discourage women from getting the prenatal care they need, which could be even more harmful to mother and baby. While the bill does outline that a woman will not be charged if she is actively enrolled in an addiction treatment program before and after the birth of her child, it does little to expand on addiction services that are currently offered in the Tennessee area.

There are few time periods in life that are as vulnerable as pregnancy, both for a woman and her developing baby. Women who may be struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol may find their battle even more difficult should they become pregnant. Overcoming an addiction is not simply a matter of willpower; it involves the support and guidance of a professional treatment team to allow for whole person healing from addiction.

NAS is excruciating to the newborns and infants who are dealing with the effects from their mothers’ addiction, and finding ways to address this public health issue is necessary and important. What are your thoughts on this legislation? How do you think mothers can be best helped when struggling with addiction during pregnancy?


[1]: “Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome and Associated Health Care Expenditures: United States, 2000-2009”. JournalistsResource.org, retrieved May 15, 2012

[2]: Patrick, SW; Schumacher, RE; Benneyworth, BD; Krans, EE; McAllister, JM; Davis, MM (May 9, 2012). “Neonatal abstinence syndrome and associated health care expenditures: United States, 2000-2009”. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association 307 (18): 1934–40. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.3951. PMID 22546608 *image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at freedigitalphotos.net