Law Pitting 'Fetal Protections' Against Pregnant Women's Rights Faces First Federal Lawsuit

October 24, 2013 — A lawsuit filed this month is the first test in federal court for a 1998 Wisconsin law (Act 292) allowing child-welfare officials to forcibly confine pregnant women who allegedly use illegal drugs or alcohol "to a severe degree" and refuse to accept treatment, the New York Times reports.

Three other states -- Minnesota, Oklahoma and South Dakota -- have laws explicitly granting authorities the ability to confine pregnant women for substance misuse. Many other states force pregnant women into treatment programs or punish them under other types of laws, such as civil-confinement, child-protection or criminal statutes, according to the Times.

Case Background

The Wisconsin suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee, involves the case of Alicia Beltran, who was arrested while 14-weeks pregnant after stating at a prenatal checkup that she had a pill addiction the previous year. Beltran explained that she had ended the addiction on her own -- which was later confirmed by a urine test -- and refused orders from a doctor and social worker to take an anti-addiction drug.

The doctor and a social worker accused Beltran of endangering the fetus, and she was arrested under the Wisconsin statute. Beltran said the fetus already had been assigned a legal guardian by the time she arrived at family court, while her pleas for a lawyer were ignored. She was sentenced to a 78-day term at a drug treatment center.

The suit claims that the law infringes on a woman's physical liberty, medical privacy, due process and other constitutional rights. The suit also charges that the law is based on inaccurate information regarding the risks to newborns and scares pregnant women from seeking prenatal care, ultimately causing more harm than good.

Key Arguments

Former state Rep. Bonnie Ladwig (R), a co-author of the law, called the measure an appropriate effort to prevent harm. She said a pregnant woman's drug use is "the same as abuse of a child after it's born. If the mother isn't smart enough to not do drugs, we've got to step in."

However, Lynn Paltrow -- executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which is arguing the case against the law along with New York University School of Law's Reproductive Justice Clinic -- said Beltran's arrest and confinement is "what happens when laws give officials the authority to treat fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses as if they are already completely separate from the pregnant woman" (Eckholm, New York Times, 10/23).