Shackled and pregnant: Wis. case challenges ‘fetal protection’ law

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Alicia Beltran

When Alicia Beltran was 12 weeks pregnant, she took herself to a health clinic about a mile from her home in Jackson, Wis., for a prenatal checkup. But what started as a routine visit ended with Beltran eventually handcuffed and shackled in government custody – and at the center of a first-of-its-kind federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a state’s fetal protection law.

On July 2, Beltran, 28, met with a physician’s assistant at West Bend Clinic at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in West Bend, Wis., for her prenatal visit. When asked to detail her medical history, Beltran admitted a past struggle with the painkiller Percocet. But that was all behind her, Beltran said: She had been taking Suboxone, a drug used to treat Percocet dependency. Lacking health insurance and unable to afford the medication, Beltran had used an acquaintance’s prescription and self-administered the drug in decreasing doses. She had taken her last dose a few days before her prenatal visit.

Two weeks later, a social worker visited Beltran at home and told her that she needed to continue Suboxone treatment under the care of a physician, said Beltran, who again declined. Two days later, Beltran found police officers at her home, who arrested and handcuffed her.

According to the police report, the officers took Beltran to a hospital, where she underwent a doctor’s exam. Her pregnancy was found to be healthy and normal, her lawyers say.

At the center of Beltran’s case is a 1997 Wisconsin law that grants courts authority over the fetus of any pregnant woman who “habitually lacks self-control” with drugs and alcohol “to a severe degree” such that there is “substantial risk” to the unborn child. Beltran’s lawyers argue that she was not using any controlled substances at the time of her arrest.

In a petition filed in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee — the first federal challenge of an arrest of a pregnant woman under such a statute – her lawyers claim that Beltran’s constitutional rights were violated in numerous ways. The language of the Wisconsin statute is vague and lacking in medical terminology, they argue, leaving too much room for speculation. Further, they say the statute fails to guarantee due process, as well as violates other rights, including privacy and physical liberty.

Experts say that criminal prosecutions of pregnant women, as well as forced drug or psychiatric treatment, have been on the rise in recent years in cases of suspected substance abuse, especially as some states adopt laws granting rights, or “personhood,” to fetuses.

National Advocates for Pregnant Women released a study this year showing that from 1973-2005, 413 pregnant women in 44 states were arrested or forced into treatment. Since 2005, there were an additional 300 cases.

As of this year, 17 states consider substance abuse during pregnancy to be child abuse under child-welfare statutes, according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute. Three of those states, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Dakota, allow pregnant women to be forced into mental health or substance abuse treatment facilities.

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