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Op-Ed: Ala. Inmate Was Denied Her Rights While Seeking Abortion Care

Op-Ed: Ala. Inmate Was Denied Her Rights While Seeking Abortion Care

August 6, 2015 — An Alabama inmate who last week was seeking access to abortion care had her reproductive "rights ... dangled above her while she was under lock and key," Susan Watson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, writes in a Huntsville Times opinion piece.

According to Watson, the inmate, called Jane Doe, "lacked the freedom to obtain the abortion she was legally entitled to because the Lauderdale County Sheriff's Office refused to transport her to a health clinic." As a result, Watson writes that ACLU of Alabama "brought suit in federal court to ensure that Jane Doe would be able to exercise her constitutional right to an abortion."

However, "[t]he case took a sideways turn" when "[t]he state sought to terminate Jane Doe's parental rights while she was pregnant, and it asked to have a lawyer appointed to represent the interests of Jane Doe's fetus," Watson writes. She notes, "Indeed, the Lauderdale County District Attorney seized upon the opportunity to make the most private of matters spotlighted in the public eye by announcing that he was charging her with chemical endangerment of her fetus and seeking the termination of parental rights."

"This move aimed to set a scary precedent and one that, we don't think, has ever played out in the history of our courts," Watson writes. She explains, "If our client lost parental rights to the fetus, the district attorney could have argued that her uterus was essentially a ward of the state, and that she would no longer be allowed to make decisions about her own body, including getting an abortion." Further, such a ruling also "might have allowed a judge to make other medical decisions on [the inmate's] behalf if she carried the pregnancy to term, including how often to take prenatal vitamins, whether to have an epidural, or whether to have a C-section."

However, Watson writes that the inmate "suddenly" changed her mind about having an abortion in an affidavit submitted by "[a]n attorney who was appointed to represent [her] in the parental rights case -- someone right out of law school and the vice chancellor of a Christian school whose website includes a link to an anti-abortion site." Meanwhile, "the termination of parental rights case [was] placed on hold," Watson writes.

According to Watson, ACLU is "deeply concerned about whether those who held the key to Jane Doe's cell coerced or pressured her to carry her pregnancy to term."

Watson notes that the case likely generated widespread coverage "because it is rare that systematic failures of justice are so exposed." She writes, "Courts should not be appointing lawyers for fetuses," and "[t]he state should not be seeking to terminate parental rights of pregnant women." According to Watson, "It's bad enough that the state has put roadblock on top of roadblock in the path of women seeking abortion," but the state in this case "took it to a new level by pulling out all of the stops to try to force a pregnant woman to carry to term."

"We wish Jane Doe well on whatever path she embarks on," Watson writes, adding, "We wish only that it's a path wholly of her choosing" (Watson, Huntsville Times, 8/4).