Is it legally permissible for a pregnant woman to receive medical treatment that might affect her newborn?
The New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. Y.N. that a pregnant woman did not violate state abuse and negligence laws by pursuing a methadone maintenance treatment program to combat her addiction to prescription drugs. The Division of Child Protection and Permanency (formerly known as the Division of Youth and Family Services) had filed a complaint against the woman alleging abuse and neglect and seeking custody of her newborn son. The baby was hospitalized for seven weeks after birth and suffered from methadone withdrawal. A family court ruled in the state’s favor but allowed the woman to keep custody of her child under state supervision.
In reviewing the lower courts’ rulings, the New Jersey Supreme Court determined that it was not enough for the state to show actual harm to the child; the state needed to prove that the parent acted with gross negligence or recklessness. The court indicated that there should have been consideration as to whether the woman exercised a minimum degree of care and acted reasonably.
In this case, the woman had suffered an injury and visited a hospital. It was then that she learned she was four months pregnant. She was already dependent upon Percocet (legally prescribed for injuries she sustained in an earlier car accident), and the hospital staff warned her that she could lose the baby if she suddenly stopped taking the drug. A few months later, the woman enrolled in the methadone treatment program.
As the court pointed out, this woman faced a choice between seeking treatment to overcome her addiction and continuing to abuse the drug. While the baby did suffer methadone withdrawal, the mother’s decision to treat her addiction was reasonable according to the court.