The House Judiciary Committee has approved a bill that would define an unborn child as a person in the case felony assault and battery cases.
The new definition would allow prosecutors to try drug addicted mothers for harm against their infants. Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, sponsored the bill which he said is meant to give prosecutors extra tools.
“We’re not changing the definition of who the person is to include a child in utero, that’s already been done. The only thing we’re doing is applying one more criminal statute that charges can be subsequently and successfully prosecuted in these cases,” said Bell
Bell told the committee he filed the bill after an appeals court asked for clarification from the legislature about a case involving a mother addicted to methamphetamine.
He said while existing law, called Garett’s Law, requires medical workers to report drug addicted mothers, prosecutors need more authority to try cases the medical community doesn't encounter. He emphasized that such parental behavior should be prosecuted.
“It’s been done by [the person] who should be caring for that child, who should be the person who is most conscious of protecting and defending that child,” he said.
Rep. Camille Bennett, D-Lonoke, made the only vote in opposition.
“We’re basically criminalizing addiction. So, a mother who is addicted to drugs, which is a horrible thing, and a horrible thing that’s happened to her children. Is that the intent of this bill?” asked Bennett.
University of Arkansas Medical Sciences physician Charlotte Hobbs works with newborns and spoke against the bill. Hobbs told the committee medical staff already notify the Department of Human Services when babies test positive for drugs. She said such a law might further discourage mothers from seeking medical care.
“I know for the baby it’s very important the mom gets prenatal care and is not afraid to come to the hospital,” she said.
In 2013, the legislature changed the definition of an unborn child from “a living fetus of twelve weeks or greater gestation” to “an offspring of human beings from conception until birth." The law currently defines an unborn child as a person in capital murder and negligent homicide cases.