ACLU History: Controlling Pregnant Women

September 1, 2010
Since the late 1980s, the ACLU has taken on cases in which government officials and courts attempt to control pregnant women's conduct and medical decisions. Some have attempted to force pregnant women to accept unwanted medical treatment; others have punished women for their conduct during pregnancy. Inevitably, such actions backfire. Women who fear the government's 'pregnancy police' will avoid prenatal care altogether, and both they and their babies will suffer as a result.

In the 1987 case of In re: A.C., hospital administrators went to court and secured an order forcing Angela Carder, a pregnant woman critically ill with cancer, to undergo a cesarean section against her will. Tragically, both she and her premature baby died. The ACLU, working with the family, got the dangerous legal precedent vacated. The case helped establish the right of pregnant women to determine their own health care.

In the 2001 case of Ferguson v. City of Charleston, the ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to void a South Carolina public hospital policy mandating drug testing of pregnant women. In a 6-3 decision, the Court held that the Fourth Amendment does not permit the state, acting without either a warrant or individualized suspicion, to drug test pregnant women who seek prenatal care in a public hospital. Furthermore, the Court insisted on the importance of medical confidentiality.

In our work on behalf of pregnant women challenging punitive state action, the ACLU has had powerful allies, including the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, the National Association for Perinatal Research and Education, and numerous other public health and women's organizations.


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