Tennessee research study finds criminalizing care has negative impacts on the health and wellbeing of substance using women

April 2019

In 2014, a bill (S.B. 1391) was passed that allowed the state of Tennessee to arrest pregnant women for the illegal use of narcotics during pregnancy if the child was born exposed to or harmed by the drug. Those arrested and charged under the Fetal Assault Law faced a penalty of up to fifteen years in prison and loss of child custody. In 2017, SisterReach launched a qualitative study to document the experiences of marginalized women, defined as women with limited financial, social, geographical, and legal assets or living in rural areas of the state, directly and indirectly impacted by the Fetal Assault Law. Ibis Reproductive Health provided technical support, and conducted listening sessions with 41 women. Findings from the study show women electing to have an abortion or delivering a pregnancy out-of-state rather than risk legal repercussions. Further, conversations with women show that the law was widely applied to substance-using pregnant women residing in Tennessee and that the use of criminal penalties was counterproductive to the wellbeing of women and their families. In particular, the law endangered the lives of substance-using pregnant women and their infants, as many women delayed or went without prenatal care due to fear of arrest and custody loss. The full report is available on SisterReach’s website.