Attorneys for Wisconsin woman Alicia Beltran filed a petition in federal court this week seeking her immediate release from state custody. The suit challenges the constitutionality of a 1997 state law that gives Wisconsin courts jurisdiction over any pregnant woman who “habitually lacks self-control” in using alcohol or drugs “to a severe degree” such that the physical health of her “unborn child” will be “seriously affected or endangered.”
Beltran was arrested after she sought early prenatal care and told health care workers about her prior use of painkillers and her attempts to stop use on her own. Instead of receiving support, she was arrested in July 2013, when she was only 15 weeks pregnant. Beltran was brought to court in shackles for her initial hearing, and without a right to counsel, she had no attorney for her initial hearing–even though an attorney had been appointed to represent her fetus. Without hearing any testimony from a medical expert, the court ordered Beltran to be detained at an inpatient drug treatment program two hours from her home.
The petition argues that there have been numerous violations of constitutional rights, including the right to physical liberty, the right to due process notice, and privacy in medical decision-making, among several others. This is the first constitutional challenge to such a law. Statements from medical experts supporting the petition say the arrest and detention of Beltran actually increases risk to the pregnancy and has no medical justification.
Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women and co-counsel for the case, said, “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 have similar laws allowing the detention of pregnant women alleged to have used alcohol or drugs.
Media Resources: Wisconsin Legislative Documents; RH Reality Check 10/3/13; National Advocates for Pregnant Women Press Release 10/2/13