“I didn’t know unborn children had lawyers.” Federal lawsuit challenges fetal protection laws

Ana Beltran, holding her pregnant belly

Photo Credit: NY Times

This month, National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) filed the first federal lawsuit challenging fetal protection laws that criminalize pregnant folks who, because of addiction or other reasons, expose their fetuses to drugs. The suit is on behalf of Alicia Beltran, a Wisconsin woman taken into custody for supposedly endangering her fetus when she refused treatment for an addiction she had already ended. 

She was 14 weeks pregnant and thought she had done the right thing when, at a prenatal checkup, she described a pill addiction the previous year and said she had ended it on her own — something later verified by a urine test. But now an apparently skeptical doctor and a social worker accused her of endangering her unborn child because she had refused to accept their order to start on an anti-addiction drug.

Ms. Beltran, 28, was taken in shackles before a family court commissioner who, she says, brushed aside her pleas for a lawyer. To her astonishment, the court had already appointed a legal guardian for the fetus.

“I didn’t know unborn children had lawyers,” recalled Ms. Beltran, now six months pregnant, after returning to her home north of Milwaukee from a court-ordered 78-day stay at a drug treatment center. “I said, ‘Where’s my lawyer?’ ”

The Wisconsin law that’s being challenged, known when it passed as the “cocaine mom” law, is much like the laws criminalizing pregnant women that we’ve covered here before: classist, racist, and more the result of moral panic than actual science about what’s good for mothers and babies. And yet, we still hear about legislators and attorneys general suggesting the drug-testing of pregnant women, and criminalizing women more generally for “fetal endangerment.”  In fact, earlier this year NAPW released a groundbreaking report on the devastating ways that fetal personhood initiatives, usually passed to restrict abortion access, are being used to criminalize pregnancy. Unsurprisingly, these laws disproportionately affect already marginalized communities: immigrant women, low-income women, and women of color.

This is a big deal. Currently four states (Minnesota,  Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wisconsin) have laws on the books explicitly permitting the detention of a pregnant woman suspected of having used drugs or alcohol.

1bfea3e7449eff65a94e2e55a8b7acda-bpfullVeronica is an immigrant queer writer, domestic artist, and music video enthusiast.

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  1. Posted October 25, 2013 at 3:55 am | Permalink

    A friend of mine got pregnant a few years ago, and having numerous health problems(both mental and physical) she was pretty sure there would be complications during pregnancy. I don’t remember what news story it was, about a pregnant woman being arrested for having a miscarriage, but she said fear was one of the motivating factors for her decision to abort. She said the fear made pregnancy feel like a prison and she began having panic attacks, and nightmares about being in a prison.

    These laws don’t encourage women to go through with pregnancy, they only serve to create an environment that is hostile toward pregnant women.

  2. Posted October 27, 2013 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    This is perhaps not surprising. After all, when we give the state authority to prevent abortions, don’t we then create a *duty* to prevent them? (When I say “we” I mean people in general, because I know *I* never voted to give government this kind of authority.)

    In my view, these sorts of legal actions turn health care professionals into an arm of law enforcement, and take doctors from allies to inquisitors. Not to be hyperbolic, but this feels like violence that is sanctioned and even carried out by the state, which makes it all the more reprehensible.

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