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When Did Pregnant Women Lose the Ability to Make Decisions for Themselves?

Alexa Kolbi-Molinas,
Deputy Director, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
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October 29, 2009

In March, a Florida judge virtually imprisoned a pregnant woman at a hospital in order to force her to stay on bed rest and to undergo any and all medical treatments deemed necessary to save her fetus. In June, a federal judge in Maine sentenced a pregnant woman living with HIV to spend the duration of her pregnancy in jail solely because she was HIV-positive and pregnant (her sentence was later vacated). And just last week, the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in a case where local probation officers admitted they threw a probationer who failed a drug test into jail because she was pregnant; if she had not been pregnant they would have taken less drastic measures.

In a blog post on Double X, Beth Schwartzapfel does a great job of discussing this unlawful and discriminatory treatment of pregnant women. She writes:

One reason these cases keep coming up, despite their clear illegality, is simple paternalism — overzealous prosecutors and judges think they know what’s best for a healthy pregnancy, as if that’s separate from what’s good for the pregnant woman. This is particularly troubling when judges assume that the woman must be confined or coerced in order to take good care of her child. . . . And the effect of prosecuting pregnant women who use drugs may be to deter other women with addictions from going to doctors’ offices and social service agencies — precisely the places they need to be. If going to the emergency room might get you arrested, would you go?

The bottom line is that pregnant women enjoy the same civil liberties — including the right to make decisions about their own health care, to equal treatment under the law, and to conduct their lives according to what they believe is best for themselves and their families — guaranteed to us all.

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