The XX Factor

Pregnant Woman Forced Into Drug-Treatment Program Despite Being Drug-Free. Only Her Fetus Got a Lawyer.

“I didn’t know unborn children had lawyers,” Beltran told the New York Times.

Photo by Comstock/Thinkstock

While the United States hasn’t yet devolved to throwing women in jail for miscarrying like El Salvador has, the anti-abortion movement’s attempt to criminalize pregnancy with “fetal endangerment” laws is already leading to arrests here at home. The New York Times reported this week on a federal lawsuit, the first of its kind, filed against Wisconsin on behalf of 28-year-old Alicia Beltran, challenging a 1998 law that allows the police to detain a pregnant woman suspected of using illegal drugs or alcohol and who refuses treatment. The lawyers arguing Beltran’s case say that the law violates constitutional rights such as due process and the right to medical privacy.

They couldn’t have asked for a better plaintiff, particularly to argue that these laws are applied selectively, often based less on actual drug use and more on doctor and police prejudices against women of color, single mothers, and the working poor. Reports the Times:

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.

Yes, her fetus was given a lawyer to represent its interests, but Beltran did not receive representation. She was forced into a treatment program two hours away from home rather than go to jail. This goes against the recommendations of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which vehemently opposes laws that allow doctors to have their patients jailed in order to accept treatment for drug addiction. The ACOG says the laws are counterproductive, because they “deter women from seeking prenatal care” and are “contrary to the welfare of the mother and fetus.”

Unsurprisingly, the people who lobbied hardest for these laws were anti-choice activists. Wisconsin Right to Life claims that incarcerating pregnant women is good for “both the woman and her baby.” Since the actual experts disagree, it’s safe to say the likelier explanation is that the anti-choice movement is seeking any opportunity it can to redefine pregnant women as baby incubators instead of citizens with full human rights. 

The irony here is that these laws not only discourage women from seeking prenatal care, but they also encourage abortion. Beltran’s story demonstrates this. The Times again:

Two weeks after that prenatal visit the social worker showed up unannounced at Ms. Beltran’s home, telling her to restart Suboxone treatment or face a court order to do so. “I told her I’m off this stuff and I don’t want to go back on it,” she recalled, admitting that she lost her temper and shut the door on the social worker after saying, “Maybe I should just get an abortion.”

Beltran wanted her baby badly enough that she suffered this treatment rather than abort, but for other women, if the choice is “abort or go to jail,” abortion is going to be the easier choice. As with the debate over contraception access, anti-choice activists demonstrate yet again that, given a choice between reducing the abortion rate or reducing women’s freedoms, they’ll pick the latter every time.