woman in jail

Wisconsin jails pregnant woman and denies her prenatal care to “protect” her fetus

Wisconsin has a law on the books that allows the authorities to lock up a pregnant person who’s used illegal drugs if she “habitually lacks self-control” and “there is a ‘substantial risk’ that the health of the egg, embryo, fetus, or child upon birth will be ‘seriously affected.'” Here’s what that looked like in practice for one Wisconsin woman

Tamara Loerstcher was suffering from an untreated thyroid condition and depression and had begun to self medicate with drugs when, in late July 2014, she suspected she might also be pregnant. Loerstcher, uninsured at the time, went to an Eau Claire, Wisconsin, hospital for medical treatment and to confirm her pregnancy.

After submitting to a urinalysis, Loerstcher disclosed her past drug use to hospital workers. But instead of caring for Loerstcher, who as it turns out was 14 weeks pregnant, hospital workers had her jailed.

Loerstcher’s medical records were handed over to the state without her knowledge. She was accused of “abuse of an unborn child” and had to sit through a hearing in which her 14-week-old fetus was appointed a lawyer. She was ordered to go to in-patient drug treatment — despite the fact that she had not used any drugs recently — and when she refused, she was held in contempt of court and sent to jail for 17 days.

One would think that when the state incarcerates a pregnant woman in order to “protect” her fetus, they’d at least do everything they can to ensure a healthy pregnancy — that is literally the only supposed purpose of such a law, after all. You’d be wrong. During her time in jail, Loerstcher didn’t have access to prenatal care and when she was experiencing cramping, she wasn’t allowed to see her regular doctor. She was told she’d need to see a jail-appointed doctor who demanded she take a test to confirm the pregnancy — even though the only reason she was in jail in the first place was because she was pregnant. When she refused, she was thrown in solitary confinement and threatened with a taser.

And Loerstcher’s nightmare isn’t over. For the crime of taking illegal drugs before she realized she was pregnant and being honest about it when she sought medical care, she’ll be on the child abuse registry for life and therefore unable to work as a nurse’s aid to support her son when he’s born next month. As Katie McDonough recaps at Salon, “In the service of ‘protecting’ Loertscher’s fetus, the state deprived her of healthcare and her freedom. Soon, it may also compromise her ability to work and support her family.”

Loerstcher, along with attorneys from the National Advocates for Pregnant Women and other reproductive rights groups, are filing a lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s law. But remember: it’s not just Wisconsin. Many states are using various laws — from “chemical endangerment” to “fetal harm” statutes — to criminalize pregnancy — mostly for poor, drug-using, women of color.

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St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard. Before become a full-time writer, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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