Pubdate: Sat, 03 May 2014
Source: Tennessean, The (Nashville, TN)
Copyright: 2014 The Tennessean
Author: Tony Gonzalez


Gov. Bill Haslam heard the opposition. He hardly could have missed it,
as a nationwide campaign exploded in the 10 days leading up to one of
his most crucial decisions this legislative session.

Would he sign a law allowing women to be criminally charged for drug
use during pregnancy?

With the proposal on the Republican governor's desk, thousands of
petitioners, national medical associations, reproductive rights
advocates and editorial writers bombarded him with demands for a veto.

But as noisy as it was - and as much as the doctors and nurses who
treat babies born to drug-addicted mothers seemed united in the view
that the law was a terrible idea - the outrage came too late. It never
truly ignited until lawmakers had passed their bills by wide margins.
And it hung on the wispy hope that the governor would apply a veto
power he has put to use just twice in four legislative sessions.

Opposition had come more swiftly a year ago, when the same lawmakers
pushed similar bills. Even state health and substance abuse officials
balked then, joining forces with advocates for women and the "strongly
opposed" Children's Hospital Alliance of Tennessee.

This year? The children's hospitals wobbled their way to a stance of
"withdrawn opposition without active support." State officials said
only that they were "working with sponsor" on tweaking the bill's

That's not to downplay the amendments to the bill. A year ago,
sponsors wanted to give prosecutors the unfettered power to charge
women with felonies for harm done to their infants.

The compromise this year says women can protect themselves from
charges by getting into one of the state's limited addiction treatment
programs. And the severity of the charge was restricted to misdemeanor
assault - although some lawyers question whether the actual language
of the bill says so.

How those changes came together in legislative discussions - and how
often medical facts and state stats were misrepresented there - would
probably give pause to even those with no opinion on what to do about
the state's epidemic of babies born drug-dependent.

In one Senate session, the only scheduled testimony was from longtime
Sullivan County prosecutor Barry Staubus.

After one lawmaker worried about the availability of addiction
treatment, Staubus conceded the bill wasn't "perfect" but pushed for
passage. "I wouldn't want one detail to get in the way of what this
bill would do," he said.

Only when another senator noticed health, substance abuse and hospital
experts in the audience did the health professionals who deal with
this for a living get their say.

Invited to the microphone, unprepared, they had plenty to say. They
spoke about the complexity of addiction and the scarcity of treatment
options for pregnant women. They also touted last year's Safe Harbor
Act, worrying only that its protections for addicted mothers hadn't
been given time to help.

The bill passed last in the House. Debate was more heated there,
although some lawmakers' questions never really got answered.

Allison Glass, of Healthy and Free Tennessee, a coalition focused on
sexual health and reproductive rights, said compromises tempered the
opposition. And yet the coalition and other groups like the ACLU of
Tennessee were quick to condemn the bill - once it reached the governor.

By that time, Glass had been to the Capitol just once, eking out a
face-to-face with one lawmaker.

She returned to deliver a swiftly organized petition with more than
10,500 signatures. Face to face with a representative in the entryway
to the governor's office, Glass spoke passionately about perceived
problems with the bill - garnering praise even from the staffer -
before handing over the names.

A day later, Haslam's deadline to act, opponents still didn't know
what would happen.

Once Haslam signed the law, one opponent to criminalization took to
social media to muse about another type of veto - a so-called
"people's veto." Tennesseans, she wrote, should simply choose not to
enforce the law.

Wishful thinking, but perhaps not the best time or place to make the
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