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Should addiction in parents be a punishable offense if their disease negatively impacts their child? Tennessee will most likely become the first state to hold addicted mothers liable for miscarriages, stillbirths, or birth defects in their children, which could result in up to 15 years in prison.

It is no doubt an extreme step. South Carolina and Alabama already consider late pregnancy substance abuse as child abuse, but Tennessee would be the first that would open addicted mothers to the possibility of criminal assault charges.

One notable feature of the bill—which has already passed the House and Senate with bipartisan support—is that mothers who are currently enrolled in addiction treatment programs. However, many are concerned for those in the poorest and most remote areas, claiming that the poor and rural communities will have fewer resources and thus be at an even greater disadvantage than they are now.

Supporters of the bill, though, say that this new law will provide more options to combat addiction in parents. They also see it as a method to counter the growing issue of babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), which is similar to addiction withdrawal symptoms. Tennessee is in the top 10 states for babies born with NAS.

Tennessee has a strange relationship with drugs, though. Just last year, the Safe Harbor Act was passed, assuring addicted parents that they would not lose custody of their children, provided they came forward and asked for drug treatment.

Compound that with confusion over what NAS actually is, and it gets far more complicated. Some legislators believe the effects of NAS are permanent and harmful to the child, while some medical professionals claim the contrary—going so far as to say “excellent treatment” options exist.

Further, it has put medical professionals and legislators at odds as to the nature of addiction. By passing punitive measures against addicted parents, legislators either actively or passively suggest that addiction is a moral failing, while the medical approach is to treat it as a behavioral disorder with genetic components. Healthcare workers also worry that these laws will keep addicted mothers from seeking the care they need if there is a risk of being turned in by their doctors.

The new law also mentions nothing about those using legally prescribed narcotics, which can also result in NAS. This is a huge problem. The commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health has stated that 60% of babies born with NAS was a direct result of medications prescribed to their mothers. It is so vaguely written, in fact, that some opponents are going so far as to say it could be applied in almost any foreseeable circumstance—even outside of drug abuse and addiction.

While this may be a stretch, it is important to remember that addiction is a tragedy that hurts the addicts and alcoholics, as well as the completely innocent. The more we try to empathize and be compassionate, the more of service we can be to those who need our help.

Addiction in Parents

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