ACLU Asks Louisiana To Clarify That New Mothers Do Not Need To Sacrifice Privacy To Obtain Birth Certificates

April 12, 2011 11:12 am

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Health Department Told Mother No Birth Certificate For Newborn Unless She Divulged Private Medical Information

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NEW ORLEANS – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana called on the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) today to clarify that new mothers do not have to disclose private medical information before a birth certificates are issued for their newborns. Earlier this year, a Shreveport mother was told she would not be given a birth certificate for her newborn after she refused to answer intrusive questions about her private medical history, including alcohol and tobacco use during pregnancy, whether she had ever had an abortion and other medical information.

“Every single child born in this state is entitled to a birth certificate,” said Marjorie Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “The state cannot leverage the child’s birth certificate to extract information from a mother. That kind of coercive conduct by health officials has no place in a free society.”

The mother – Laird Sapir – was told by DHH and staff of the Willis-Knighton Health System in Shreveport that her child would be denied a birth certificate unless she disclosed private information on a hospital form called “Birth Certificate Worksheet.” The worksheet, whose contents are dictated by DHH, is issued by the hospital to all expectant mothers. The hospital transmits mothers’ answers directly to state authorities.

“I was shocked when I saw those questions,” said Sapir. “They felt like an invasion of privacy. I couldn’t believe the state was threatening to deny my baby a birth certificate unless I gave up my privacy rights.”

Despite the threats by state and hospital authorities, Sapir printed “I refuse to answer” next to the intrusive questions. The ACLU launched an investigation and demanded that Sapir’s baby receive a birth certificate. The certificate was issued in March, six weeks after Sapir’s baby was born.

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 as a passport, driver’s license and marriage certificate. Birth certificates can also be essential for school enrollment and the addition of a child to his or her parents’ health insurance plan.

In Louisiana and other states, authorities conduct statistical research through the birth registration process, but do not distinguish between data actually necessary for birth registration – such as the parents’ names and addresses – and the additional statistical information used for research. Often, both types of questions are included in the same form, and parents are erroneously told that they must answer all of the questions on the form.

“A lot of mothers just don’t know that they have the right to refuse to answer,” said Mie Lewis, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “They’re just handed a form by hospital staff and told to fill it out. State officials have no right to withhold a child’s birth certificate in order to extract private medical information from the child’s mother. The state should make it clear what information is required and what isn’t, and shouldn’t exploit new mothers to gain personal information.”

“The ACLU will continue to monitor the situation,” said Katie Schwartzmann, Legal Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “The decision to become a mother should not require a woman to abandon her privacy and dignity. It is unacceptable for the state and hospitals to coerce mothers into divulging private medical information by threatening to withhold babies’ birth certificates.”

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