Harrisburg, PA – The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that a mother who used illegal drugs while pregnant can’t be charged with child abuse against their newly born baby under the state’s child protection law.
The court’s opinion was released Friday and said the law’s definition of a child does not include fetuses or unborn children, and the ruling stated the victims must be children, the Associated Press said.
Two dissenting supreme court justices said what should matter is when the injury manifests itself which can happen after the child is born, the Associated Press reported.
The ruling came after a Superior Court ruling in August that upheld a judge’s decision that prosecutors could not charge a woman with assault against her fetus because she overdosed on heroin while pregnant, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
A baby spent 19 days in a hospital last year after being born and was treated for drug dependence that created symptoms of severe withdrawal, the Associated Press reported.
Butler County Common Pleas Judge William Shaffer said that the woman who overdosed on heroin while pregnant was “senseless, selfish and heinous” but added he had to follow the law. Butler County prosecutors appealed his ruling, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
A 1997 statute that makes it a crime to hurt or kill an unborn child exempts pregnant women as well as abortion clinics and medical personnel from being charged.
Some prosecutors and child protective services want to be able to press charges against mothers who take illegal drugs during pregnancy as they say it can cause irreparable harm to the fetus, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The lawyer of the mother who overdosed said the supreme court decision was a victory for public health and the rights of women and children, according to the Associated Press.
The Pennsylvania Heath Care Cost Containment Council released a report in December that said opioid use during pregnancy is more than five times more common now than it was in 2000.