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Who Gets to Make Medical Decisions for Pregnant Women?

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August 5, 2009

(Cross-posted to Daily Kos and Feministing.)

Imagine this — you’re the busy mother of two small kids with another one on the way. This pregnancy has been fraught with complications. During a medical exam, your doctor orders bed rest for the remainder of your pregnancy. You explain that you can’t possibly stay in bed for four months with two small children (!). The doctor insists. You say you want to get a second opinion. The doctor refuses and goes to court and gets a court order mandating your confinement in the hospital for the remainder of your pregnancy.

Sound crazy? Well something along these lines happened to Samantha Burton, a mother of two in Florida who was 25 weeks pregnant when she was hospitalized against her will due to pregnancy complications. When she requested a transfer to another hospital so she could get a second opinion, the state refused because it was not in the fetus’ “best interests at the time.” After three days in state-mandated confinement, Ms. Burton lost the baby. The ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project and the ACLU of Florida filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Burton earlier this week.

Being pregnant does not mean that you lose the basic right to make decisions about your own health care. In a free society, each of us has the liberty to conduct our lives according to what we believe is best for ourselves and our families. Though we may disagree with the health decisions of some, we do not force people into medical care, or in the case of Burton, into confinement in a hospital.

Don’t get me wrong — of course I want pregnant women to follow their doctor’s advice. But I do not think that pregnant women should be confined against their will if they are unwilling or unable to do so. If we allow the government to confine a pregnant woman for not following orders to remain in bed, what’s next? Will we forcibly hospitalize pregnant women for having a glass of wine with dinner? Or eating too much fast food? What if they don’t take their prenatal vitamins? Or miss their doctor’s appointments? What if a pregnant woman refuses a cesarean section? While we each may have strong opinions about such behaviors, our government cannot interfere in a woman’s personal private medical decisions. Allowing the government to make medical decisions for pregnant women means that literally every decision and every activity a pregnant woman engages in could be regulated by the state. And certainly the possibility of state-mandated hospitalization for those who have engaged in “unhealthy behaviors” would deter some women from seeking any prenatal care for fear of being punished. In that situation, everybody loses.

We would all be better off engaging in healthy behaviors. In our society, we motivate people to do so through education and information, not threats of confinement or punishment. Unfortunately, Samantha Burton’s case is not unique. We hear of a number of cases in which women are discriminated against, even thrown in jail, simply because they are pregnant. Every pregnant woman should be able to access the health care she needs to have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby without fearing forced hospitalization or confinement.

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