Tennessee’s Fetal Assault Legislation


UPDATE-Amnesty International Report, “Criminalizing Pregnancy: Policing Pregnant Women Who Use Drugs in the USA” (Released May 23, 2017)


Drug Use and Pregnancy in Tennessee: What You Should Know if You Use Drugs & Become Pregnant
Fetal Assault Law Provider Update
Fetal Assault Law Legal Update


Healthcare Not Handcuffs is a state-wide and national effort led by Healthy and Free TNSisterReach, TAADAS, The National Advocates for Pregnant Women and other advocates to decriminalize pregnancy outcomes in Tennessee by pushing for the sunset of the state’s fetal assault law (the first of its kind in the nation) and to prevent other states from adopting similar laws.

In 2014, SB 1391 was enacted amending Tennessee’s fetal homicide law to include “prosecution of a woman for assault of a fetus based on her illegal use of narcotic drugs while pregnant and creating the affirmative defense that the woman completed an addiction recovery program.” In 2015, an attempt to expand the law to include meth, failed.

With the law set to expire on July 1, 2016, Sen. Reginald Tate, the sponsor of the original bill in 2014 filed an amendment (SB1629) to extend the law indefinitely. Rep. Terry Lynn Weaver was the House Sponsor (HB1660). In an attempt to gain enough support for the bill for it to pass, Rep. William Lamberth came back with an amended version of HB1660 that specified viability at 25 weeks (to address one lawmakers concern about abortion) and earmarking 10 million in funding for treatment (a bill for 30 million for treatment funding already in House Health Subcommittee failed). However, the bill was successfully defeated by a vote of 3-3.

For a brief look at the law and others like it and their implications for pregnant people, see Brave New Films’ mini-documentary “To Prison for Pregnancy,” below:

A few of the dangers of this punitive law for pregnant people, from SisterReach:

  • Avoiding prenatal care altogether to avoid incarceration;
  • Avoiding safe birthing experiences under medical supervision to avoid loss of the newborn child and current children;
  • Self-inducing abortions to avoid jail time and loss of children;
  • Being forced to travel to other states without similar laws to give birth;
  • Creating a deeper wedge of mistrust among mothers and their doctors forced to police their motherhood and healthcare.

A few reasons this law should sunset, from Healthy and Free TN:

  • The American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Public Health Association, among other major medical organizations, counsel against threatening pregnant people who use drugs with arrest.
  • The criminal justice system is not the appropriate vehicle to help pregnant people access treatment or reduce neonatal abstinence (NAS) rates because addiction is a health issue.
  • The law is being unfairly applied. More than 28 women have been arrested under this law, a majority of them are low-income women and women of color. It is low-income women who utilize non-prescription opioids who have been arrested under Tennessee’s law, but the fact remains that prescription opioids were involved with most of the NAS cases in Tennessee.
  • Pregnant people are avoiding prenatal care and crossing state lines to seek services or give birth.
  • Only 11 of the licensed residential detox programs in Tennessee will accept pregnant women providing just 132 slots for all of the people seeking treatment in those facilities.

A more complete outline of reasons is available, here. See also, Info Sheet: What’s Wrong with HB1660?

Also see Healthy and Free TN’s summary report and recommendations from the October 2015 conference on “Pregnancy, Drug Use, and the Law: Creating Fair and Effective Public Policies.”


Sign the Petition

Sign the Brave New Films and Healthy and Free TN Petition, here.

Contact Members of the Criminal Justice House Subcommittee

The bill has been sent to the Criminal Justice House Subcommittee.

Tell them you oppose SB1629/HB1660 and to let the fetal assault law sunset!

Sample Letter:

Dear [Rep.____],

I am writing to oppose House Bill 1660, which would extend Tennessee’s fetal assault law (TCA 39-13-107) indefinitely.

Healthcare providers and major medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Public Health Association, advise against threatening pregnant people who use drugs with criminal prosecution and instead advocate funding maternal drug addiction treatment.

Proponents claim the law is intended to get women into treatment but there are not enough services available for pregnant women in Tennessee. Right now, waiting lists for care can have hundreds and even over 1,000 people on them at any given time. And only 11 of the licensed residential detox programs in Tennessee will accept pregnant women, providing just 132 slots for all of the people seeking treatment in those facilities.

This law also undermines the health of pregnant women and their fetuses, deterring them from important prenatal medical care as a result of the threat of criminal charges. Tennessee should stop spending tax dollars that put mothers through the costly criminal legal system and tear families apart when those funds could be better used to expand access to evidence based treatment programs and help keep families together.

I urge you to oppose House Bill 1660. Let this harmful law sunset and instead commit to more effective, evidence-based solutions to address pregnancy and drug use. 


[Name, Address]

Andrew Farmer (R-Sevierville) Phone: (615) 741-4419

Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) Phone: (615) 741-3830

Tilman Goins (R-Morristown) Phone (615) 741-6877

William Lamberth (R-Cottontown) Phone: (615) 741-1980

Micah Van Huss (R-Jonesborough) Phone (615) 741-1717

Mike Stewart (D-Nashville) Phone: (615) 741-2184

Write a Letter to the Editor or an Op-Ed

You can access Healthy and Free TN’s Letters to the Editor Toolkit.


Film Screening and Panel, Born Addicted and Other Myths: How Tennessee Justifies Criminalizing Pregnant Women, Healthy and Free TN (March 17, 2016). See powerpoint ‘Born Addicted’ and Other Myths.

Film Screening and Panel, Reaching Recovery: Pregnancy & Addiction in East Tennessee, The University of Tennessee and Metro Drug Coalition (March 10, 2016)

Night of Action to Oppose Fetal Assault Law in Knoxville, Families Healthy Together and Students for Sensible Drug Policy at UTK, (March 3, 2016)

Legislation Watch and Lobbying Training, Nashville Feminist Collective (February 23, 2016)

Pre-Conference, Pregnancy, Drug Use, and the Law: Creating Fair and Effective Public Policies in Tennessee, Healthy and Free TN (October 1, 2015)



“Criminalizing Motherhood,” Victoria Law, Tennessee Students and Educators for Social Justice (June 25, 2014)

“Babies Aren’t ‘Born Addicted’ and Other Misconceptions About Drug Use in Pregnancy,” Institute for Research, Education & Training in Addictions (January 23, 2015)

“Baby Addicts?,” Mama’s Got a Plan: Maternity Care, Health Insurance, and Reproductive Justice (June 1, 2016)

“‘Fetal assault bill’ dies on tie vote in House sub,” Humphrey on the Hill, KnoxBlogs (March 23, 2016)

“‘Fetal assault bill’ may lead to more drug treatment funding for pregnant women,” Humphrey on the Hill, KnoxBlogs (March 20, 2016)

“Today, Tennessee lawmakers can make a wrong against drug addicted mothers right,” Medium (March 21, 2016)


“A Baby was Born a ‘Junkie,'” The Huffington Post (March 8, 2016)

“CHOICE/LESS, Episode 7-Brittany: Why wouldn’t someone help me?,” Rewire (June 27, 2016)

“Detoxing for delivery: Facing medical challenges, judgement and sometimes jail,” Knoxville News Sentinel (March 6, 2016)

“Doctors are applauding the end of a unique Tennessee law threatening addicted mothers with jail for assault if they gave birth to babies with drug dependence,” U.S. News (April 1, 2016)

“Drug Treatment Slots are Scarce for Pregnant Women,” National Public Radio (November 19, 2015)

“Fetal assault bill fails, law will be discontinued,” Times Free Press (March 23, 2016)

“Fetal assault law goes off the books July 1,” WSMV (May 13, 2016)

“Fetal Assault Law in TN will officially die in July (2016),” WGNS News Radio (March 22, 2016)

“Fetal Assault Law Not Renewed,” Nashville Post (March 23, 2016)

“Fetal Assault Law Set to Expire, Some Want It To, Others Don’t,” WGNS News Radio (March 4, 2016)

Group Says TN Drug Dependent Law May Hurt More than Help,” WREG (January 23, 2015)

“House Kills Bill that Would Extend Fetal Assault Law,” WBIR (March 23, 2016)

“How the myth of the ‘addicted baby hurts newborns and their mothers,” RawStory (March 24, 2016)

“I Went to the Hospital to Give Birth and Tested Positive for Meth,” Narratively (May 17, 2016)

“Inside the ‘Fetal Assault Law’ Sending Pregnant People to Prison,” The Establishment (March 7, 2016)

“Into the Body of Another,” The Atlantic (May 8, 2015)

“Knoxville mother wants fetal assault law to expire,” WBIR (March 8, 2016)

“Legislators clash with doctors, judges over renewing fetal assault law,” Knoxville News Sentinel (March 20, 2016)

“Mother of drug-dependent baby tells her story,” WBIR (March 2, 2016)

“Mother testifies against fetal assault law,” WBIR (March 15, 2016)

The New Moral Panic Over Drug-Dependent Babies,” The American Prospect (May 7, 2014)

“Personhood Laws Can Land Women in Court for Crimes Against Their Own Fetuses,” Vice (October 13, 2015)

“Pregnant Women and Drug Use: Media Reinforces Stigma and Stereotypes,” Women’s Media Center (February 10, 2016)

“Punished for Addiction: Women Prisoners Dying from Lack of Treatment,” RH Reality Check (April 1, 2015)

“The State Where Giving Birth Can Be Criminal,” The Nation (December 10, 2014)

“Tennessee Arrests First Mother Under Its New Pregnancy Criminalization Law,” Think Progress (July 11, 2014)

“Tennessee discontinues controversial fetal assault law,” PBS (March 27, 2016)

“Tennessee Ends Effort to Arrest and Incarcerate Drug-Addicted Pregnant Women after ‘Fetal Assault’ Law Found to Deter Prenatal Care and Drug Treatment,” injustice.in (March 23, 2016)

“Tennessee Fetal Assault Law Defeated in Committee,” Rewire (March 23, 2016)

“Tennessee Fetal Assault Bill Fails, Allowing It To Be Struck From State Law,” NPR (March 22, 2016)

“Tennessee Fetal Assault Bill Fails in House Subcommittee,” WATE 6 (March 22, 2016)

“Tennessee Fetal Assault Bill Fails, Law will be Discontinued,” WPSD Local 6 (March 23, 2016)

“Tennessee is doubling down on prosecution of pregnant drug users,” Mashable (March 21, 2016)

“Tennessee lawmakers to vote on amended fetal assault bill,” WBIR (March 21, 2016)

“Tennessee law that punishes mothers of drug-dependent babies to end,” Knoxville News Sentinel (March 23, 2016)

“Tennessee law that punishes mothers of drug-dependent babies to end,” The Tennessean (March 22, 2016)

“Tennessee law that punishes mothers of drug-dependent babies to end,” USA Today (March 23, 2016)

“Tennessee legislators allow drug-dependent baby law to expire,” Kingsport Times News (March 23, 2016)

“Tennessee to Decide if It Will Keep Criminalizing Pregnant Women for Drug Use,” The Huffington Post (March 8, 2016)

“Tennessee’s War on Women is Sending New Mothers to Jail,” Mother Jones (March 14, 2016)

“Tennessee Will Not Uphold Law that Criminalizes Giving Birth to Drug-Dependent Babies,” Jezebel (March 24, 2016)

“War on Drugs Targets and Devastates Pregnant Women,” Truth Out (May 4, 2014)

“Wave Goodbye to Harsh Tennessee Law Targeting Pregnant Drug Users,” The Huffington Post (March 23, 2016)

“Why Some Tennessee Women are Afraid to Give Birth at the Hospital,” The Huffington Post (October 2, 2015)

“Woman Thrown in Jail for Having an Addiction While Pregnant,” AlterNet (January 22, 2015)


“Criminalizing Expectant Mothers,” The New York Times (April 16, 2014)

“Don’t jail mothers,” Letters to the Editor, The Tennessean (November 21, 2015)

“Fetal assault law hurts mothers,” The Tennessean (March 20, 2016)

“Fetal assault law hurts women, babies,” Knoxville News Sentinel (March 8, 2016)

“Fetal assault law is missing the mark,” Johnson City Press (March 22, 2016)

“Fetal assault law needs sunsetting,” Chattanooga Times Free Press (March 7, 2016)

“Law makes it harder for moms to get help,” Knoxville News Sentinel (March 8, 2016)

“Pregnant and No Civil Rights,” Lynn Paltrow and Jeanne Flavin, The New York Times (November 7, 2014)

“State should support health of moms, kids,” The Commercial Appeal (March 8, 2016)

Stop bill harmful to women,” The Tennessean (March 9, 2016)

“Treat, don’t jail, drug-addicted mothers to be,” The Tennessean (March 25, 2014)

“We Lose When We Divide Arrests of Pregnant Women Between Good and Bad Ones,” Rewire (January 23, 2017)


“Advocacy Organizations Oppose Fetal Assault Law,” Healthy and Free TN (January 26, 2016)

“H-420.970 Treatment Versus Criminalization-Physician Role in Drug Addiction During Pregnancy,” American Medical Association

“Healthy and Free Tennessee Celebrates Sunset of TN’s Dangerous Fetal Assault Law,” Healthy and Free TN (July 1, 2016)

“Maternal Decision Making, Ethics and the Law,” American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2005)

“Medical and Public Health Professionals Push for an End to TN’s Fetal Assault Law,” Healthy and Free TN (March 2016)

“Medical and Public Health Statements Addressing Prosecution and Punishment of Pregnant Women,” National Advocates for Pregnant Women

“Opioid Abuse, Dependence, and Addiction in Pregnancy,” American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (May 2012)

People of Faith Ask Legislators to Allow Fetal Assault Law to Sunset, SisterReach (March 9, 2016)

“Tennessee ‘Fetal Assault’ Law a Threat to Women’s Health and Human Rights,” Amnesty International (March 11, 2016)

“Tennessee Lawmakers Should Stop Prosecutions of Pregnant Women,” National Women’s Law Center (January 27, 2016)

“Women Directly Impacted, Health and Legal Professionals, and Advocates Speak Out to Oppose House Bill 1660,” Healthy and Free TN (2016)