HARTFORD, Conn. -- Connecticut's highest court ruled yesterday that a pregnant woman who injected cocaine into one of her veins as she was about to go into labor had not abused her baby, even though the child was born several hours later severely traumatized, pale and deprived of oxygen.
The state Supreme Court said in a unanimous ruling that state law gives no legal rights to the unborn and that child-welfare workers had erred in using the mother's actions before the birth in July 1989 to justify taking the baby away shortly after the birth.
The decision cut across a swath of deeply divisive issues, from abortion and the pivotal question of when life begins, to the efforts by many states to encourage better prenatal care by expectant mothers.
As the number of children severely affected by their mothers' drug use has grown, child-welfare officials and the courts have struggled with the issue of whether the mothers' actions constitute child abuse and whether the state has any right to interfere. Some have favored jailing drug-addicted mothers to prevent them from using drugs, but others have argued that such action would be a gross violation of the mothers' rights.
In the Connecticut case, the court ordered a new trial on whether the mother's rights were wrongly terminated, and lawyers in the case were divided about whether that means the child, an apparently healthy 3-year-old named Valerie, will be returned to a mother she has never lived with. Throughout the 44-page decision, written by Justice David M. Borden, the court took on a tone of regret at the course it felt compelled to take.
"Certainly, no one approves of the intravenous injection of cocaine by a pregnant woman who had been warned of the risks to her fetus," the decision said. But the court concluded that up until the moment of birth, Valerie was not a "child" as defined by law and that, therefore, the mother's actions were not "parental conduct" regulated by civil statutes.
The mother's conduct had been "egregious," the court said. She had used the drug even as she was preparing to go to the hospital, it said. Yet the court said the implications of penalizing an expectant mother for bad or non-existent prenatal care were even more dire for society since it might result in fewer women seeking prenatal care if they knew their conduct might lead to the removal of the child.
A spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union, which participated in the case on behalf of the mother, said that since the mid-1980s, at least 167 women in 24 states have been charged with abusing an unborn child.
Of those cases, at least 17 were appealed, said spokeswoman Andrea Della Monica, and all those appeals resulted in charges being thrown out. But the Connecticut case is apparently only the second to reach the level of a high state court. A Florida Supreme Court case last month was the first. There, the court threw out misdemeanor criminal-abuse charges against a woman who had used cocaine during her pregnancy.
The woman in the Connecticut case, whose name was not given in the court papers, was not charged with any criminal wrongdoing, and the sole issue in yesterday's decision was whether the rights to her child had been severed properly.