A measure to allow assault charges against Tennessee women who harm their fetuses with drug use while pregnant awaits only the governor's signature to become law.
House Bill 1295 cleared the House on Wednesday by a 64-30 vote. The Senate companion bill passed earlier this week.
If signed into law, the proposal would again give law enforcement the power to charge women with assault if their babies are born drug-dependent because of the mother's use of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine or other narcotics.
Those women could have their records expunged if they complete treatment.
Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, the bill's sponsor, said the measure gives prosecutors a "velvet hammer" — pushing drug-using mothers to come forward for addiction treatment or face jail time.
"It would just seem to me that any society that puts value on life, that these defenseless children deserve some protection," said the Lancaster Republican.
The proposal also includes an unusual element for a criminal law — a sunset provision. That means the criminal penalty will be in effect until 2016, when lawmakers will have to revisit whether arresting women has an impact on the number of drug-dependent births, and whether to continue the criminal penalty
For years, women could be charged if their newborns tested positive for harmful drugs. During that time, drug-dependent births increased tenfold.
Lawmakers eliminated the criminal penalty two years ago, then passed the Safe Harbor Act, which puts pregnant women to the front of the line for treatment programs and protects their custody rights as long as they get help.
They've also had to consider the role of doctors in prescribing painkillers, whether criminal penalties encourage some women to get abortions, the best medical approaches to weaning mothers and infants off drugs, and a lack of drug courts and treatment options across the state.
Speaking in opposition Wednesday, Rep. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, said she worried jail time would punish women already struggling with addiction.
"We just passed legislation in 2013 to try to help these women and we have not had an opportunity to see the results."