Is Refusing Bed Rest a Crime?

That’s the question posed by Lisa Belkin at the New York Times, as she covers the case of Samantha Burton, who, after refusing her doctor’s advice to go on bed rest during her pregnancy, was not allowed to be released from a Florida hospital. The answer is obviously an emphatic “no,” and in her blog post, Belkin outlines why.

Burton was in her 25th week of pregnancy when her doctor advised her to go on bed rest because she was showing signs of miscarrying. Burton told him that bed rest, which could have lasted as long as 15 weeks, was impossible because she couldn’t take time off from her job, and furthermore, had two toddlers to take care of.

According to Belkin:

She was ordered to stay in bed at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital and to undergo “any and all medical treatments” her doctor, acting in the interests of the fetus, decided were necessary. Burton asked to switch hospitals and the request was denied by the court, which said “such a change is not in the child’s best interest at this time.” After three days of hospitalization, she had to undergo an emergency C-section and the fetus was found dead.

Her lawyer, with the ACLU’s help, took the case to a higher court, challenging the state’s original decision and “charging that a dangerous precedent had been set.” The brief[PDF] filed by ACLU lawyers argues that the original decision was unlawful because it manipulated a court’s right “to order medical treatment for a child over a parent’s objection,” to apply to an unborn fetus.

From the brief:

To ignore this fundamental constitutional distinction between the state interest in protecting fetal life and its interest in the protecting the lives and health of people is to risk virtually unfettered intrusion into the lives of pregnant women.

As Belkin suggests, this case raises the important question of where to draw the line. Does this precedent mean that the state can forcibly hospitalize a pregnant woman for not eating enough? What about eating too much? For having a glass of wine with dinner? The government has no right to interfere in decisions like these.

Dahlia Ward, of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project sums it up:

While we each may have strong opinions about such behaviors, our government cannot interfere in a woman’s personal private medical decisions. Allowing the government to make medical decisions for pregnant women means that literally every decision and every activity a pregnant woman engages in could be regulated by the state. And certainly the possibility of state-mandated hospitalization for those who have engaged in “unhealthy behaviors” would deter some women from seeking any prenatal care for fear of being punished. In that situation, everybody loses.

We will keep you updated on the results of this case, the results of which are crucial for women’s privacy rights.

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The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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