Pennsylvania Drug Use and Pregnancy Laws

Drug Use During Pregnancy Laws in Pennsylvania

Substance abuse is a difficult thing to overcome, it is especially difficult for an individual to deal with their addiction while pregnant. There are many health risks that come with drug use during pregnancy, Illinois laws are put in place to help pregnant women who continue to use.

Is substance abuse a crime during pregnancy?

No. Pennsylvania state law does not prosecute pregnant women for abusing substances or alcohol during pregnancy.

Have women been prosecuted for drug abuse during pregnancy?

Yes. Northampton County prosecutors successfully prosecuted a case in 2000. They alleged that because the mother used heroin while she was 7 months pregnant, it constituted child endangerment. Tony Hill Rice was convicted and spent 42 days in jail. However, the conviction was overturned in 2001 because the ‘Born-Alive Rule‘  has been recognized in Pennsylvania since 1791.

Pennsylvania Drug Use During Pregnancy Laws
Pennsylvania Drug Use During Pregnancy Laws

Is substance abuse during pregnancy considered child abuse?

No. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that prenatal exposure to substances does not constitute child abuse under the state’s Child Protective Services Laws. The court found that because the act of birth had not yet occurred, the fetus is not legally considered a child. Therefore, under the CPSL, a mother who was addicted to substances that can harm a fetus could not have been a perpetrator under the legal definition of child abuse.

Is it grounds for civil commitment for substance abuse during pregnancy?

No. There is no specific requirement for civil commitment based solely on a pregnant woman’s addiction to drugs or alcohol during pregnancy.

Will health care workers have to report substance abuse during pregnancy?

No. Under Pennsylvania law, health care workers are only required to notify authorities in cases where an infant is delivered or is under one year of age and shows signs of substance withdrawal due to prenatal exposure. However, the notification does not result in a report of child abuse. Instead, the state will work with the parents to develop a ‘Plan of Safe Care.’

Is a drug test required if drug use has been suspected during pregnancy?

No. However, if a child is born exhibiting symptoms of withdrawal or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, routine testing of the parent(s) or caregiver(s) may be incorporated as part of the ‘Plan of Safe Care.’

Drug Use During Pregnancy

The effects of substance abuse during pregnancy have wide-ranging implications for the fetus and the mother. The debate on how to address pregnancy and drug addiction issues has resulted in differing opinions among the states. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a federal program that has established “Safe Care” guidelines when health care providers identify a woman who is struggling with substance abuse. Still, it is left up to the states to decide the ultimate plan of action. Some states still view it as a criminal issue while others are looking to understanding the root causes of drug addiction as a health issue.

Drug use and pregnancy laws in Pennsylvania
Drug use and pregnancy laws in Pennsylvania

In the past, prosecutorial strategies against women who struggle with pregnancy and addiction have included statutes that deal with delivering controlled substances to a minor (via the umbilical cord), child abuse and/or neglect, or manslaughter charges in the case of fetal death. Nearly all these cases have either been dropped or overturned, but it shows that each state is approaching this issue in vastly different ways.

Moreover, there is an increasing consensus among legal scholars that we should treat drug addiction during pregnancy as a health issue, not a criminal issue. However, advocates still struggle with informing the courts on the ways policy can better reflect research. With the current state of the opioid epidemic hitting certain states extremely hard, there is a renewed push to reexamine drug use during pregnancy laws in Pennsylvania.

Women struggling with pregnancy and drug addiction experience increased stress when worried about potential criminal repercussions of substance abuse during pregnancy. Some of the most common questions are:

  • “What happens if I fail a drug test while pregnant?”
  • “Will they take my baby if I test positive at birth?”

This increased fear and stigmatization can lead women to avoid prenatal care, causing further harm to a fetus. Pennsylvania is one of the growing numbers of states shifting policy toward ending the stigmas associated with pregnancy and drug addiction.