“This week, 76 organizations and experts in maternal, fetal, and child health, addiction treatment, and health advocacy filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief before the New Jersey Supreme Court, urging it to overturn a lower court ruling making the state’s civil child abuse law applicable to women who received medically prescribed methadone treatment while pregnant.
At the center of the case is a woman, identified by the court as Y.N., who had been struggling with a dependency on opioid painkillers. When she found out she was pregnant, she followed medical advice and obtained care that included methadone treatment. She gave birth to a healthy baby who was successfully treated for symptoms of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). NAS is a side effect of methadone treatment and other medications, such as those commonly prescribed to treat depression. Y.N. was reported to the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP, formerly the Division of Youth and Family Services), and was judged to have abused or neglected her child because she agreed with her physician’s recommendation and followed the prescribed course of methadone treatment while pregnant.
Lawrence S. Lustberg of Gibbons P.C., co-counsel for the amici, explains that “the New Jersey Supreme Court has been a national leader in recognizing that when cases raise scientific, medical, or other technical issues, the evaluation of these issues must be informed by existing scientific knowledge, including expert testimony.” He added, “This case should not be an exception, yet, the decision in the lower court was reached without the input of a single medical expert and without considering the established science addressing the value of methadone treatment to maternal, fetal, and child health, and other key health and social welfare issues in the case.”
Dr. Robert Newman, one of the experts represented in the brief and a nationally and internationally recognized authority on methadone treatment, said, “As a matter of medicine and health care, it is simply nonsensical to regard methadone treatment as a form of child abuse.” He explained, “Decades of research unequivocally demonstrate the benefits of treating a pregnant woman’s addiction to opioids with methadone, an extraordinarily well-studied medication whose benefits to the mother as well as the baby unquestionably outweigh the treatable and transitory side effects that are sometimes seen in the newborns.” He noted that “It is not recommended that women simply stop using opiates during pregnancy” and that “methadone and other related treatments are acknowledged by national and international governmental, academic and clinic authorities to be the best choice for maternal, fetal, and child health, reducing risks of miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature birth.”
The experts’ brief addresses the fact that the lower court did not consider health measures that can be taken after birth to reduce symptoms of NAS, including keeping the new mother and baby together and encouraging breast feeding. The brief also notes that there is nothing in the lower court’s decision that limits its ruling to pregnant women who receive methadone treatment and could be applied to any pregnant woman, including those who experience health conditions such as epilepsy, depression, and blood clots that require medication that have potential adverse effects in the newborn.
Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women and co-counsel representing the experts, explained that, “unless the lower court decision is reversed, New Jersey would become the only state in the U.S. to effectively ban pregnant women from receiving methadone treatment.” She added, “DCPP’s position and the lower court’s decision is inexplicable and irrational. They not only fly in the face of the recommendations of the World Health Organization and the U.S. government, but New Jersey itself, which, through collaborations between the New Jersey Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and DCPP, provides methadone treatment to pregnant women and families in the child welfare system.”
The court is expected to hear oral arguments this term. The group of expert amici included the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Psychiatric Association, American Public Health Association, American Society of Addiction Medicine, Medical Society of New Jersey, New Jersey Psychiatric Association, New Jersey Obstetrical and Gynecological Society, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, and National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence-NJ. A full list of amici is available here:http://bit.ly/K7vhNo.
In 2013, more than 50 national and international experts published an open letter urging that media coverage of prenatal exposure to opioids be based on science, not stigma and misinformation. This letter is available at: http://bit.ly/1eIdeaz.
Source: National Advocates for Pregnant Women – January 9, 2013