woman behind bars

Alabama is trying to deny a woman an abortion by terminating her parental rights

A woman imprisoned in an Alabama jail wants an abortion, as is her right. But her request to be released and escorted to the nearest clinic to get the procedure was denied. The sheriff said the jail has a policy of requiring inmates to get a state court order for any elective, non-emergency medical procedure outside the jail. The woman, represented by the ACLU, has filed a lawsuit challenging that policy in federal court as a clear violation of Roe v. Wade.

That’s not even the most outrageous part of this story, though. Alabama is one of those places where if you are a minor, or a prisoner, or anyone else who is forced to beg for permission to end their pregnancy from the court system, you will often find that the state has appointed a lawyer—a guardian ad litem—to represent your fetus. And in this case, the state is taking a unique tactic to protect the “interests of the fetus.”

Lauderdale County District Attorney Chris Connolly has asked a juvenile court judge to terminate the parental rights of a female prisoner who wants to have an abortion.

Connolly told the TimesDaily of Florence that if the judge grants the petition, the woman, listed in court filings as Jane Doe, will not have the right to ask for an abortion.

“Our position, if the termination for parental rights is granted, is that (the mother) would not have standing to obtain the abortion,” said Connolly.

Got that? The state is attempting to strip her of her parental rights over a “child” that is not actually a born child yet and arguing that if she doesn’t have parental rights, she has no right to terminate the pregnancy. Apparently, the DA’s basis for terminating her parental rights is that she’s facing a charge of “chemical endangerment of a child” — by which they mean “unborn child.” In recent years, Alabama has used the chemical endangerment law to arrest dozens of pregnant women for using a controlled substance, but the Huffington Post reports that “this appears to be the first case of the state using the law to prevent an incarcerated woman’s abortion.”

In other words, the state is arguing that since this woman has “endangered” her fetus by using drugs, it should now effectively become a ward of the state, and therefore the state can do anything it wants—including forcing her to carry it to term against her will—to protect it. And it doesn’t have to end there: “Does the guardian ad litem say what food she eats, what vitamins she takes, what exercise she does and every other decision regarding the fetus?” asks the ACLU’s Randall Marshall.

Of course, legally, this is a totally nonsensical move. Abortion rights are not rooted in parental rights and so terminating them would not at all impact this woman’s right to choose. Marshall expects that the ruling in the federal lawsuit, which is supposed to come down tomorrow, will “make clear that it is Jane Doe’s constitutional right to choose to terminate her pregnancy and that no action by state officials or any state court order can interfere with that right.”

But the state’s argument reveals the inevitable and terrifying end result of giving legal rights to fetuses: a woman utterly stripped of her autonomy and legally reduced to being nothing more than a vessel incubating a future ward of the state.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is 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 magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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