Oct. 3, 2013, Jessica Mason Pieklo, RH Reality Check, "Advocacy Group Seeks Immediate Release of Pregnant Woman Detained Involuntarily for Drug Treatment"

October 03, 2013

Oct. 3, 2013, Jessica Mason Pieklo, RH Reality Check, "Advocacy Group Seeks Immediate Release of Pregnant Woman Detained Involuntarily for Drug Treatment"

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Advocacy Group Seeks Immediate Release of Pregnant Woman Detained Involuntarily for Drug Treatment

by Jessica Mason Pieklo
October 3, 2013

On Wednesday, National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking the immediate release from state custody of a pregnant Wisconsin woman who was involuntarily detained at a drug treatment facility despite no evidence she was using drugs while pregnant.

Alicia Beltran, a 28-year-old pregnant woman confided in health-care workers about her prior use of painkillers and her efforts to end that use on her own during an early prenatal care visit. On July 18, Wisconsin law enforcement officials arrested her under a 1997 Wisconsin law, which gives the state the power to forcibly detain any pregnant woman who “habitually lacks self-control” and poses a “substantial risk” to the health of an egg, embryo, or fetus.

As the petition explains, the law, Wisconsin Act 292, gives courts “original jurisdiction over fertilized eggs, embryos, and pregnant women at all stages of pregnancy where the pregnant woman ‘habitually lacks self-control’ in the use of alcohol or controlled substances ‘to a severe degree’ such that there is a ‘substantial risk’ that the health of the egg, embryo, fetus, or child upon birth will be ‘seriously affected.’” It continues:

On the basis of this jurisdiction, the State is empowered under the Act to appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the best interests of the “unborn child”; arrest the pregnant woman and place her in physical custody for the length of her pregnancy; subject the woman to involuntarily medical examinations, testing, and treatment; require the woman to stand trial for negligence with possible deleterious effects to her right to parent her child once born; and all without proper procedural safeguards or a sufficient government interest under all constitutional standards of review.

According to the petition, Beltran was forcibly taken into custody by law enforcement when she was 15 weeks pregnant, put into handcuffs and shackled at the ankles, and brought to a court hearing. Although a lawyer had already been appointed to represent her fetus, Beltran had no right to counsel—and therefore had no attorney—at the initial court appearance. Then, without testimony from a single medical expert, the court ordered her to be detained at an inpatient drug treatment program two hours from her home.

Attorney Linda Vanden Heuvel, who represents Beltran, explained in a statement that “locking up Ms. Beltran, under the Wisconsin law, does not serve the best interests of Ms. Beltran’s future child and most certainly tramples the rights of Ms. Beltran, a woman who was not in fact using any controlled substances at the time of her arrest and who is committed to having a healthy pregnancy.”

The petition asserts violations of numerous constitutional rights, including the right to physical liberty, the right to due process notice, privacy in medical decision making, the right to carry a pregnancy to term, the right to have an abortion, the right to privacy in medical and personal information, the right to be free of illegal searches and cruel and unusual punishment, and the right to equal treatment under the law. It is supported by sworn statements from medical experts who conclude that the arrest and detention of Beltran lacks medical justification and increases risks to the pregnancy.

Lynn Paltrow, executive director of NAPW and a co-counsel, explained in a statement, “[T]he Wisconsin law takes away from a pregnant woman virtually every right associated with constitutional personhood—from the most basic right to physical liberty to the right to refuse bad medical advice.” She added, “This kind of dangerous, authoritarian state-action, is exactly what happens when laws give police officers and other state actors the authority to treat fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses as if they are already completely separate from the pregnant woman.”

Minnesota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wisconsin all have laws that explicitly permit involuntarily detaining pregnant women alleged to have used alcohol or drugs. According to NAPW, all were passed in the late ’80s and ’90s with support of anti-choice organizations. Proceedings under these laws are generally confidential and this is the first constitutional challenge to such a law.


Originally published on RH Reality Check.