The XX Factor

Wisconsin Is Throwing Pregnant Women in Jail to Protect “Unborn Children”

Drug-using pregnant women may not be the most sympathic characters, but their civil rights deserve to be defended.

Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Last week I wrote about the escalating trend toward arresting women who use illegal drugs while pregnant, even when the science indicates that legal drugs like tobacco and alcohol do the same or more proven harm to babies than opioids and methamphetamine. I cited the case of Wisconsin mother Alicia Beltran, who was arrested and forced to undergo in-patient treatment for a Percocet addiction she’d already kicked, and wrote that it “sounds like a dystopian satire.”

I can now say the same about another case out of Wisconsin: a woman arrested for drug use even though she says she stopped when she realized she was pregnant, brought to court and twice refused lawyers (even though her fetus was given one), and then sent to jail for 17 days, where she was placed in solitary confinement, denied prenatal care even as she began cramping, and not given her thyroid medication for two days, according to the woman and her lawyers.

In a conference call on Thursday, an attorney at the National Advocates for Pregnant Women outlined the case of 30-year-old Tamara Loertscher, who used meth and marijuana before she discovered she was pregnant. Brought in for two juvenile court hearings under the state’s so-called cocaine mom law, Loertscher refused to submit to in-patient treatment because, she said, she was not an addict and had stopped using drugs. She was then jailed for contempt of court. She was released from jail after agreeing to submit to regular tests, which—according to one of her lawyers, NAPW’s director of legal advocacy Sara Ainsworth—have repeatedly shown that she is clean. Nonetheless, the state of Wisconsin then informed her that it considered her a child abuser, which will prevent Loertscher from ever working again in her profession, as a certified nurse’s aide. Ainsworth says it could even prevent the soon-to-be mom from one day volunteering at her son’s school.

I’d like to back up a little here, though, because you can’t consider Wisconsin’s punitive approach to pregnant women—which purports to protect “unborn children”—without first considering how the state has failed to promote actual family values. Loertscher, who suffers from hypothyroidism and depression (they are often linked), says she quit her job last February during a depressive episode and then found herself without insurance. Wisconsin is one of the states that turned down the Medicaid expansion tied to Obamacare that might have made it easier for people in her situation to get health insurance. She says she started using meth and marijuana in an attempt to self-medicate for the fatigue and depression she was experiencing, using meth two to three times a week and marijuana less often. She also took an over-the-counter supplement for the thyroid problem.

When Loertscher first suspected she was pregnant over the summer, she was about 14 weeks along. She says she stopped using and made an appointment within days at a hospital to begin to care for the pregnancy and to seek treatment for the depression and hypothyroidism. A urine test showed her recent drug use, which Loertscher says she also told her medical provider about, and she was called into a hearing with a judge by phone. During this and a later hearing, she claims she asked for a lawyer but was not given one. As in the Beltran case, Loertscher’s lawyers say, the fetus was assigned a guardian ad litem.

In jail, Loertscher says she asked for but was not allowed to keep two scheduled prenatal visits with her doctor. Amid all the stress, she says, she began to experience cramping and worried that something bad was happening to her fetus. She says she was told she could only be seen by a jail-appointed doctor, who was not an OB-GYN and who, according to Ainsworth, provided no ultrasound or any kind of prenatal care.

“The field doctor told me if I decided to miscarry, there was nothing to do about it anyway,” Loertscher told reporters, starting to cry. “It was really awful.”

Amid all this, weirdly enough, Loertscher says she was told she would need to submit to a pregnancy test. This might be darkly funny in a satirical novel; in real life, it’s not so much. As Ainsworth put it, “A pregnant women who had been put in jail for being pregnant was then asked to take a pregnancy test.” Loertscher was confined at the Taylor County Jail, so I reached out to Taylor County Sheriff Bruce Daniels for comment on the allegations about how she was treated there. He confirmed that Loertscher was incarcerated there in September but said he was not personally familiar with her, had not been contacted by her about the allegations, and couldn’t respond to them.

Loertscher says when she got out of jail, “I thought things were looking up,” and then she got a notice that the state had determined she’d mistreated her child. “I don’t even know how they came out with that when I’d been fighting the entire time in jail to seek care because I was really worried about him,” she says. Now she is fighting to overturn the state’s child abuse finding, and her legal team is also planning to file a civil rights lawsuit against several Wisconsin state agencies in federal court, arguing that the “cocaine mom” law is unconstitutional and violated Loertscher’s civil rights.

Wisconsin’s 1998 cocaine mom law was also at work in the Beltran case. It is designed to force women who have exhibited drug use to a “severe degree,” posing a “substantial risk” to the health of her fetus, into treatment. If Loertscher had indeed stopped using by the time of her first doctor’s visit, it’s not clear that she meets these standards. It’s also not clear how much of a threat to the fetus Loertscher’s methamphetamine use poses. Mishka Terplan, a Baltimore-based OB-GYN and addiction expert who participated in the conference call, said if he’d been Loertscher’s doctor at that first prenatal visit, he would have been more concerned about Loertscher’s untreated thyroid condition and depression than her drug use. Arresting pregnant women, or threatening them with arrest, also goes against recommendations by the American Medical Association and many other mainstream medical groups, which point out that such arrests and threats can discourage women from seeking prenatal care.

NAPW, NYU’s Carr Center for Reproductive Justice, and another firm are pursuing the civil rights lawsuit together, and how it will wind up is anyone’s guess. Beltran also sued for how Wisconsin treated her, but the case petered out when a judge dismissed it after she’d been released from custody. I hope Loertscher gets better results. Yes, she made bad choices, and unhealthy ones. Her situation may be difficult for many readers to identify with. Drug users, and especially pregnant ones, don’t make for the most sympathetic characters, which makes defending their civil rights that much harder. But it’s also essential.