Editor's note:

A bill that would charge women with a crime if they use drugs while pregnant has not yet passed the House. The Senate approved SB 1391 Monday night, and lawmakers expect to discuss the House version of the bill (HB 1295) this week. Previous stories incorrectly reported that measure had already passed the House.

(WBIR - Knoxville) Tennessee has a drug problem. It is a problem that is painfully apparent at East Tennessee Children's Hospital in Knoxville. ETCH treats hundreds of babies who have gone directly from life in the womb to a life of withdrawal.

"How big is this problem? It's huge," said Carla Saunders, Neonatal Nurse Practitioner at ETCH. "In the last three years, we have treated over 700 babies for just this problem. That is, babies who are here only for treatment from withdrawal. Not for any other reason."

Often the babies are born with a physical dependency to opiates due to mothers who took prescription painkillers during pregnancy. The children ultimately pay a heavy physical price for the mother's addiction.

"We see all of the same symptoms that occur neurologically in adults. We see vomiting. We see diarrhea. We see shaking, shaking uncontrollably," said Saunders.

A new bill making its way through the state legislature would criminally punish mothers whose children suffer damage due to prenatal drug use. Authorities could charge women with misdemeanor assault.

If the ultimate goal is to protect children, Saunders said the answer is to motivate mothers to seek treatment. She does not support the proposed bill because it could have the opposite effect. Saunders also believes the bill is too broad and leaves too much up to interpretation of prosecutors.

"If they fear punishment, then there is a very good chance they will run from prenatal care. And then they are at greater risk for putting both themselves and the baby in danger," said Saunders. "Most of these cases are not women who are getting drugs on the street. They are prescribed drugs and under a physician's care. Every case needs to be evaluated individually and I fear this type of blanket law."

Lawmakers have tried to address those concerns by making a revision that says women will not be charged with a crime if they are undergoing treatment for drug use.

Saunders said more than half of the 855 reported cases of drug-dependent babies in Tennessee last year were born to women already under a physician's care for drug use.

The house has already passed the bill. It could face a vote in the senate sometime later this week.

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