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A Mother Fights Back Against The Daddy State — And Wins

Mie Lewis,
Women's Rights Project
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April 12, 2011

Here at the ACLU, we’ve seen — and challenged — many of the ways in which the government singles out women for surveillance and control over our private lives. The never-ending fight for reproductive freedom is one obvious example. But even we were amazed when a state health department told an expectant mother that it wouldn’t give her baby a birth certificate unless she told the state private medical facts, including her abortion history and whether she had smoked cigarettes or drunk alcohol while pregnant.

The state is Louisiana. The mother is a courageous woman named Laird Sapir. Laird stood up to the state’s threats, writing “I refuse to answer” next to the intrusive questions on a hospital form that was to be sent to state authorities. Laird also refused to answer when she was asked the same questions in person. Then she reached out to the ACLU. We launched an investigation, informed Louisiana officials that they were breaking the law, and demanded that Laird’s baby receive a birth certificate.

Every child born in America is entitled to a birth certificate. Birth certificates are basic vital documents necessary to prove a person’s United States citizenship, and they are the key to obtaining other important documents such a passport, driver’s license, and marriage certificate. Because states must issue these important documents to all babies, Louisiana simply did not have the right to try to leverage the birth certificate to extract private information from the mother.

Laird’s story has a happy ending: After months of uncertainty and wrangling by the ACLU with state officials, Laird’s baby received a birth certificate. But what happened to Laird is happening to other mothers: state officials — using hospitals as intermediaries — piggyback statistical research on the birth registration process. By asking both types of questions on the same forms, they blur the line between information they really need to register a child’s birth, such as the parents’ names and addresses, and additional information they want for other purposes. Many mothers just don’t know that they have the right to refuse to answer.

Of course, there is no doubt that collecting health statistics can serve public health goals. But no one should be forced or tricked into disclosing their private medical information to the government. It is especially disturbing when the government uses pregnancy and motherhood as excuses for intruding into women’s privacy. Here, the state actually tried to pit a mother’s interest in privacy against her own child’s interest in having an officially-recognized identity.

These are some of the reasons why the ACLU opposes the routine collection of private information by the government. But such data collection happens every day, and in this digital era it’s happening fast and on a massive scale. The only way to protect our rights as mothers and citizens is to ask questions, demand answers, and take a principled stand for ourselves and our children.

Speak out! If you’ve had a similar experience, tell us about it at: womensrights@aclu.org.

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