Case on Court-Ordered Bed Rest Highlights Reproductive Rights Concerns for Pregnant Women

January 13, 2010

Oral arguments began this week in the Florida case of Samantha Burton, a pregnant woman who visited her doctor when she was 25 weeks pregnant with signs of a potential miscarriage. The doctor ordered bed rest, which Burton declined with the intent of seeking a second opinion, as her two job and two existing young children made bed rest a difficult prospect. The doctor then contacted the state.

According to the New York Times:

She was ordered to stay in bed at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital and to undergo “any and all medical treatments” her doctor, acting in the interests of the fetus, decided were necessary. Burton asked to switch hospitals and the request was denied by the court, which said “such a change is not in the child’s best interest at this time.” After three days of hospitalization, she had to undergo an emergency C-section and the fetus was found dead.

I am appalled. But I am not surprised.

The NY Times points to an ACLU rep’s statement at Daily Kos which neatly sums up the problem:

Don’t get me wrong — of course I want pregnant women to follow their doctor’s advice. But I do not think that pregnant women should be confined against their will if they are unwilling or unable to do so. If we allow the government to confine a pregnant woman for not following orders to remain in bed, what’s next? Will we forcibly hospitalize pregnant women for having a glass of wine with dinner? Or eating too much fast food? What if they don’t take their prenatal vitamins? Or miss their doctor’s appointments? What if a pregnant woman refuses a cesarean section? While we each may have strong opinions about such behaviors, our government cannot interfere in a woman’s personal private medical decisions. Allowing the government to make medical decisions for pregnant women means that literally every decision and every activity a pregnant woman engages in could be regulated by the state.

Of course, our government DOES interfere with a “a woman’s personal private medical decisions” — just look at abortion laws –and this case is just one more example.

The same values that lead to restricting women’s choices about following medical advice also affects the choices women have in birth. Many hospitals will not allow vaginal births after cesareans or allow women to chose whether they are continuously monitored, implying that the “only thing that matters” is getting a healthy baby at the end, and that the woman’s “experience” does not matter. In such a framework — where women’s desires are readily ignored (and made to seem trivial) —  court intervention with regards to bed rest does not seem extreme. We have already seen cases in which court-ordered cesareans have occurred.

In this case — as in abortion and birth choices –the fetus is prioritized. A woman’s bodily autonomy and preferences for how her pregnant body is treated and used are held secondary to fetal outcomes. People other than the individual woman are allowed rights to control her reproduction.

The ACLU argued in its amicus brief [PDF] on the case that such interference “invites State requests for court intervention in nearly all aspects of pregnant women’s behavior and medical judgments,” and may discourage women from seeking care. “In turn, some women will be discouraged from coming to a hospital for pregnancy care if they know that any disagreement may lead to forced medical treatment.”

Archives of the oral archives should become available soon at available at the website of the Florida 1st District Court of Appeal.

Jill at the Unnecesarean also has a couple of posts on the case. For more on issues related to the rights of pregnant women generally, see the National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

[adapted from a post at Women’s Health News]

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