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The rights of an unborn child are wrought with moral conundrums, especially when those rights and their enforcement conflict with those of the mother. However a recent case where a pregnant woman was detained by police, is being presented to the federal court as “unconstitutional”.
Alicia Beltran was 14-weeks pregnant when she was handcuffed and taken from her Milwaukee home to be detained in a holding cell. She believed she had done the right thing by telling her physician of a pill-addiction she had overcome the year before during her pre-natal exam. Despite stating she was no longer taking the drugs (later substantiated by a urine test), Ms. Beltran was ordered to take anti-addiction medication, which she refused. As a result, her doctor and social worker to became skeptical over her habit and accused her of endangering the unborn child. This ultimately led to her being taken into a holding cell for the “protection” of the fetus.
Under a Wisconsin law (also enforced in Minnesota, Oklahoma and South Dakota) child-welfare authorities can forcibly confine a pregnant woman who uses illegal drugs or alcohol “to a severe degree,” and who refuses to accept treatment. The law is intended “to help both the woman and her baby,” said Susan Armacost, the legislative director of Wisconsin Right to Life, whose group lobbied hard for the measure.
Ms. Beltran was brought before a family court commissioner who, she says, brushed away her pleas for a lawyer. Then, to her shock, she was presented with a court-appointed legal guardian for her fetus, “where’s my lawyer?” – she asked. According to Lynn M. Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women in New York “This is what happens when laws give officials the authority to treat fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses as if they are already completely separate from the pregnant woman.”
Now six months pregnant and just returning home after her court-ordered 78-day stay in a drug treatment centre, Ms. Beltran’s case is forming part of a federal suit filed this month, the first challenge to fetal protection laws of its kind.
The Wisconsin law, according to the suit filed in United States District Court in Milwaukee, deprives women of physical liberty, medical privacy, due process and other constitutional rights. It is also based on faulty information about the risks to newborns and ultimately does more harm than good, the suit argues, by scaring pregnant women away from prenatal care.