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When should the tragedy of an overdose become a criminal act?

A 30-year-old Pennsylvania woman has been charged with aggravated assault on a newborn after she overdosed while seven months pregnant. It's a tragic story, made only more so by the shortsightedness and mistakes that appear to have contributed to the events.

Although the woman was charged under Pennsylvania law, we thought it would be interesting because it raises important questions. Should suffering from an overdose that was the fully expected effect of addiction result in criminal charges? Does it matter if intervening events contributed to the outcome of the overdose?

From the point of view of the woman and her family, this was a heartbreaking tragedy. Do the criminal charges serve any purpose?

The woman spent much of her pregnancy behind bars on a retail theft charge. When she was released, she was prescribed Narcan, which is a drug used to counteract the effects of opiate/opioid overdoses. It sounds as if the jail was well aware of her addiction and the likelihood of overdose.

A few days later, she overdosed. She had apparently injected herself with heroin she found under a couch.

Unfortunately, when police and paramedics arrived, they failed to recognize the symptoms of overdose. They did not administer the Narcan, but instead decided she was suffering from a seizure, probably from a closed head injury.

Emergency room personnel may not have initially recognized the signs of overdose, either. According to the Associated Press, she was not treated for overdose until a blood test was done and the results came back. By that time, it appears the baby suffered "lasting injuries" and was born the following day.

The woman has a boyfriend who is the father of the infant and of a shared six-year-old daughter. He has admitted to using heroin after a positive urine test. He has not been charged with a crime.

It sounds as if this woman was expected to overdose and did so, perhaps due to a failure to provide appropriate drug treatment and continuity of care. It seems as if she was not treated for the overdose as quickly as she should have been. Why is she the only one to be held responsible?

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