Florida Court Refuses to Appoint Guardian for a Fetus

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
January 9, 2004 12:00 am

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Decision Marks a Victory for the Health and Rights of Pregnant Women


DAYTONA BEACH, FL - The American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and Florida NOW applauded today's decision by a Florida court of appeal blocking an attempt that would have opened up the floodgates of government intrusion into the private lives of women in Florida. The case involved a request to appoint a guardian for the fetus of a severely disabled woman.

""We are gratified that the court recognized that appointing a guardian for the fetus in this case would have allowed the state to micromanage the pregnancies of women throughout Florida, determining what vitamins they take, what pre-natal testing they obtain, and the method by which they deliver,"" said Julie Sternberg, a staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project.

The case involved a severely disabled woman, known as J.D.S., who became pregnant as the result of a rape that occurred while she was living in a state-licensed group home. The state failed to determine that she was pregnant until she was already at least five months pregnant. She gave birth to a baby girl in August of last year. In today's ruling the court noted that because the issue is of ""great public importance and capable of recurring,"" it continued to review the case despite the fact that J.D.S. had already given birth.

""Appointing a guardian for the fetus would have set a dangerous precedent that would have undermined the fundamental right to choose abortion in Florida,"" said Bebe Anderson, staff attorney with the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Earlier court proceedings ordered the appointment of a guardian for J.D.S. and denied a request by the appellant in today's case, Jennifer Wixtrom, to be appointed guardian for J.D.S's fetus. The state backed Wixtrom's appeal, noting in court papers that it sought to control what pre-natal vitamins she took, whether she obtained sonograms, and whether she received anesthesia during delivery.

In today's decision, one of the panel judges emphasized that ""taking control of a woman's body and supervising her conduct or lifestyle during pregnancy or forcing her to undergo medical treatment in order to protect the health of the fetus creates its own universe of troubling questions.""

""The state's interest in a guardian for the fetus of J.D.S. was driven by the political agenda of Governor Bush,"" said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. ""Today's decision makes clear that state law prohibits the state from violating the rights and interfering with the health care needs of pregnant women.""

The ACLU, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and Florida NOW filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case; Randall Marshall of the ACLU of Florida argued the case before the court of appeal last year.

The case is In re Guardianship of J.D.S., Jennifer Wixtrom, Appellant, Case No. 5D03-1921. Attorneys in the case include Sternberg, Diana Kasdan, and Jaya Ramji of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project; Marshall of the ACLU of Florida; Anderson of the Center for Reproductive Rights, and Susan A. England for Florida NOW.

The friend-of-the-court brief is available online at: /Files/OpenFile.cfm?id=13343

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