US court rules that pregnant women who take drugs cannot be charged for child abuse

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled on Friday that women who use illegal drugs cannot be prosecuted for child abuse offenses. This, after Clinton County Children and Youth Services charged a mother who gave birth to a baby addicted to drugs and removed the infant from her care.

The state’s apex court made the ruling on the basis that Pennsylvania law that does not recognize fetuses as children and that Child Protective Services Law should only protect children from abuse.

Writing for the majority, Justice Christine Donahue noted that the wording of the law would have included protection for an unborn child if the CPSL was intended to protect unborn children. She added:

“The fact that the actor, at a later date, becomes a person who meets one of the statutorily-defined categories of ‘perpetrator’ does not bring her earlier actions — even if committed within two years of the child’s bodily injury — under the CPSL.
“We conclude, based on the relevant statutory language, that a mother cannot be found to be a perpetrator of child abuse against her newly born child for drug use while pregnant.”

The ruling was not unanimous. Justice Sallie Updyke Mundy, who voted against the ruling, wrote that the infant had “suffered bodily injury after birth when she began exhibiting withdrawal symptoms. Therefore, the mother was the perpetrator of child abuse on (the baby) after birth, notwithstanding the fact that she ingested the drugs prior to birth.”