NEWARK – The ACLU-NJ today praised a decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court that unanimously upheld the rights of a woman who took methadone during pregnancy to treat an addiction to opioids, affirming the arguments of the amicus brief the ACLU-NJ submitted in the case. The state’s highest court determined that the New Jersey Department of Youth and Family Services and the Appellate Division had erred by deeming the mother responsible for abuse and neglect of her child because she took a prescribed medication for the purposes of harm-reduction while under a doctor’s care.
This decision reversed an Appellate Division ruling that had considered any harm to a child, regardless of the broader facts surrounding the circumstances, as evidence of abuse or neglect. The court also remanded the case back to the lower court to assess whether there were any alternate reasons for the finding.
“This ruling underscores that the state should not be in the business of second-guessing medical decisions made by a woman and her doctor,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Edward Barocas. “Penalizing pregnant women for seeking health care is not only unconstitutional, but counterproductive.”
On the recommendation of her doctors, Y.N. took methadone during pregnancy to treat her addiction to the pain killer Percocet. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, methadone maintenance treatment is “the most effective treatment for opiate addiction” and leads to “improved pregnancy outcomes,” which the decision itself referenced. When Y.N.’s child was born, he required treatment for opioid withdrawal, as doctors had anticipated, but was otherwise healthy. The Appellate Division determined that the child’s withdrawal symptoms were sufficient for a finding of abuse and neglect.
According to the New Jersey Supreme Court the Appellate Division applied an excessively stringent and inflexible interpretation that did not factor in the mother’s decision-making in the best interest of herself and her pregnancy. The court’s decision also discussed the lower court ruling’s “perverse disincentive” for pregnant women to be forthcoming with their doctors, fearing that an appropriate course of treatment for addiction could ultimately result in a ruling of abuse or neglect.
“This ruling is incredibly important for recognizing the nuances involved in making complex personal medical decisions, especially during pregnancy,” said Ronald Chen of the Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic, who served as cooperating attorney in this case on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. “If, as a society, we truly care about healthy moms and healthy babies, we must ensure pregnant women have access to prenatal care, support, and treatment to overcome their addiction.”
The unanimous ruling was authored by New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Barry T. Albin.
“We hold that, absent exceptional circumstances, a finding of abuse or neglect cannot be sustained based solely on a newborn’s enduring methadone withdrawal following a mother’s timely participation in a bona fide treatment program prescribed by a licensed healthcare professional to whom she has made full disclosure,” the court's opinion said.