Michigan Court of Appeals Rules: A Fetus Is Not A ‘Child’

Pregnant woman holding belly
Appellate Court rules that a fetus is not legally a child.

The Michigan Court of Appeals has thrown out a conviction against 30-year-old Melissa Lee Jones, a mother who was convicted of child abuse for using drugs during her pregnancy. This unprecedented ruling, while it has an immediate impact of Jones’ life, also has further reaching implications with regard to the abortion debate.

Jones was convicted of child abuse after accepting a plea deal from the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office. She had given birth to a weak and undersized baby boy in January of 2015, and abandoned him at Sturgis Hospital. Blood tests revealed that the baby had drugs in his system, specifically methamphetamines.

Although Jones abandoned her son after the blood tests were completed, it is standard procedure in Michigan for CPS to be notified when a baby tests positive for drugs after birth. CPS typically opens an investigation into the mother. If they are able to prove that the mother used drugs during the pregnancy, the agency typically removes the child from the mother’s custody and depending on the severity of the situation, petitions for termination of the parent’s rights.

As a result it was determined that Jones had abused her baby by exposing him to illicit substances while in utero. On that premise, Prosecutor John McDonough charged Jones with First Degree Child Abuse, which she later pled guilty to. But it didn’t end there.

Once in prison Jones challenged the conviction on the grounds that the Michigan definition of Child Abuse is “knowingly or intentionally causes serious physical or serious mental harm to a child.” A child, under state law, is defines as “a person who is less than 18 years of age and is not emancipated by operation of law as provided in section 4 of 1968 PA 293, MCL 722.4.”

Based on this legal definition of child, Jones argued that an unborn fetus is not a child, and the Court of Appeals agreed with her. In the decision penned by the Court, the Judges explain that “The defendant argues that the first-degree child abuse statute was improperly applied to her because a fetus is not included within the statutory definition of ‘child,’ and she therefore could not have caused harm to a ‘child’ as required by the statute simply by using methamphetamine during her pregnancy. We agree.

Because a fetus is not a ‘child’ for purposes of the first-degree child abuse statute, defendant cannot be guilty of first-degree child abuse based solely on the fact that she used methamphetamines while she was pregnant, and the trial court erred by accepting her guilty plea.”

This decision, which was handed down on September 29th, has enormous implications for Michigan mothers in the future. It will be referred to by other Judges when faced with similar cases, and will impact how prosecutors across the state handle situations where babies are born with drug addictions.