“Fetal rights”: here’s where it goes

Not quite the Republic of Gilead, but close enough for rock and roll, and way too close for my liking — a pregnant woman’s refusal to take court-ordered bed rest and quit smoking “in the interest of the fetus” may be a crime:

Arguments are under way today in the First District Court of Appeals in Tallahassee, Fla., in the case of Samantha Burton, who was confined to her bed by a judge earlier this year because she was at risk for a miscarriage.

Burton was in her 25th week of pregnancy in March 2009 when she started showing signs of miscarrying. Her doctor advised her to go on bed rest, possibly for as long as 15 weeks, but she told him that she had two toddlers to care for and a job to keep. She planned on getting a second opinion, but the doctor alerted the state, which then asked the Circuit Court of Leon County to step in.

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.”

The really alarming thing about this tale of nanny statism run amok is that the woman at the center of it isn’t even involved in high-risk behaviour (though arresting pregnant addicts for “child endangerment” is also wrong and stupid).  In this case, the woman is just living the fairly typical life of a working mother, including an unhealthy but legal habit, and being ordered by the state not to do so in the interest of the fetus she’s carrying.

The idea of “fetal rights”, a relatively recent weapon in the arsenal against abortion rights, is offensive on a few levels — primarily because — hello?? — *my* pregnancy is none of *your* business, and vice-versa.  But it’s also an unworkable concept because it compromises the pregnant woman’s rights.   If a fetus has the same rights as the woman carrying it — to the point where the state considers it a “child” they can intervene to protect — the pregnant woman has significantly less personal liberty than her non-pregnant sister, who can’t be ordered by the state to quit smoking and take to her sickbed.

We joke about it, but in a very real sense “fetal rights” relegate a pregnant woman to the status of peripheral fetal support hardware — this case is just one example of where that goes.  You have to wonder what’s next — diet?  Exercise?   I know women who run marathons when they’re 6 months pregnant — should they withhold this information from their doctors for fear of being ratted out and sent to bed?  Ridiculous.

21 Responses to ““Fetal rights”: here’s where it goes”

  1. 1 Michelle Friday, January 15, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Seriously, shit like this means I’m not having children on American soil. I will beg, borrow, cheat, lie and/or steal to either get to Canada or overseas. Or, it means that I don’t have children, no matter the cost.

    Honestly, I predict it may mean that some women won’t seek prenatal care, even for a wanted pregnancy — just as some of my doula clients put off prenatal care until the 7th or 8th or 9th month for fear they’ll be incarcerated for illegal substances. If a woman runs the risk of becoming something less than human, then it may mean we’re more willing to take risks to avoid that fate.

    I die a little inside.

  2. 2 burpster Friday, January 15, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    Do I hear the call of women as not much more than birthing machimes?

  3. 3 deBeauxOs Friday, January 15, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Over at DAMMIT JANET! the term we use when we are writing about The Fetus©™ fetishists attempts to control pregnant women is “fetal support unit”.

  4. 4 burpster Friday, January 15, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    I like that, deBeauxOs. Will come in handy for my many arguments on Facebook.


  5. 5 JJ Friday, January 15, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    Michelle – It’s terrifying when you think of where it could lead. Women lose the right to control what happens to their own bodies, and the fetus becomes more or less a ward of the state.

    A little too close to Gilead for my comfort.

  6. 6 JJ Friday, January 15, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    burpster – “Birthing machines” 😆 It’s true — lose the right to control your own pregnant body and you become little more than a baby-making apparatus.

  7. 7 JJ Friday, January 15, 2010 at 3:25 pm


    Over at DAMMIT JANET! the term we use when we are writing about The Fetus©™ fetishists attempts to control pregnant women is “fetal support unit”.

    Yes, I use “fetal support unit” too, and other delightful articulations of the same idea. I started using this elegant & descriptive little phrase during all that feverish C-484 blogging a couple of years ago, and ever since then I’ve vacillated between fetal support “unit”, “hardware” and “system”. Really, it’s time to come up with something new… fetal maintenance mechanism?

  8. 8 Alison S Friday, January 15, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    The moral of this story is, if you live in the US, agree with your doctor and then do as you please. This is a case where lying is totally justified to protect the woman. Yes Doctor, I am in complete bed rest….. meanwhile back at the job…..

  9. 9 J. A. Baker Friday, January 15, 2010 at 4:50 pm


    When referring to the Fetus Fetishists’ view of women, I’m partial to “ambulatory incubator” myself.

    Incidentally, the article you linked to reminded me of this post by PZ back in September about the fucked up treatment of an Australian teenager and her boyfriend for the sexcrime of taking RU-486. We’re not that far away from the Orwellian nightmare PZ describes, are we?

  10. 10 smelter rat Friday, January 15, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    As someone who has spent 30 years working with many children damaged by piss poor pre and post natal care (from both moms and dads), i have to say I’m on the fence with this one.

  11. 11 sassy Friday, January 15, 2010 at 9:08 pm

    If the STATE is to uphold the good doctors order they MUST

    1) provide a full time 24/7 live in daycare for the children the woman already has (one person, not a series of shifts)

    2) Make sure the her children have daily visits with her during her hospital stay,

    3) Cover her lost income during her hospital stay.

    That’s it, that’s all!

  12. 12 Bleatmop Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 1:28 am

    The Onion has a new video up about forced birthing laws that actually had me wondering if it was real until I saw it was from them.

    I would have laughed if the reality wasn’t so chilling.

  13. 13 deBeauxOs Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 9:09 am

    sassy, I agree with those points. But since The Fetus©™ fetishists focus their obsession on The Fetus©™, I’m not expecting any recognition on their part regarding the reality of a mother’s commitments and responsibilities.

    Those toddlers aren’t in her womb, are they? As far as The Fetus©™ fetishists are concerned, c’est pas leur problème.

  14. 14 JJ Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 11:49 am

    Alison S – Exactly — the problem is, how does a woman get the kind of medical care she needs if she’s not telling her doctor everything he/she needs to know?

  15. 15 JJ Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 11:52 am

    JAB – OMFG, what a travesty. Two young lives ruined over a fucking blastocyst?? Outrageous.

  16. 16 JJ Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 11:57 am

    smelter rat – While I understand your concern, and would hope that most pregnant women do the right thing and take care of themselves, the bottom line is that a person owns their own body and can do whatever they want to it — it’s not the state’s place to intervene in such behaviour. They already have far too much control over what we can and cannot do to ourselves, IMO.

  17. 17 JJ Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 11:58 am

    Bleatmop – 😆 Thanks for the link, I might use that later.

  18. 18 JJ Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    sassy – The government’s wish to control people usually ends when it starts costing them money. But control freaks generally don’t have a problem with double standards — ie. the fetus fetishists, who are all for saving teh babies until they’re born and actually need food clothing and shelter.

  19. 19 JJ Saturday, January 16, 2010 at 12:13 pm

    deBeauxOs –

    Those toddlers aren’t in her womb, are they? As far as The Fetus©™ fetishists are concerned, c’est pas leur problème.

    No double standard there, nope.

  20. 20 smelter rat Monday, January 18, 2010 at 4:43 am

    @JJ, thousands of young people with FAS/FAE might disagree with your theory, as might the citzenry who deal with the impact of this easily preventable disorder.

  21. 21 JJ Monday, January 18, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    smelter rat – I see your point, but this is one of those problems where doctors have to give their advice and just hope the patient will follow it. People have to be relied upon to do the right thing — if some don’t, that’s a chance we have to take rather than infringe on personal liberty. So we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one 😉

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