ACLU of Massachusetts Asks Court To Order Release of Pregnant Woman

September 7, 2000 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

Thursday, September 7, 2000

BOSTON, MA – The state cannot take a pregnant woman into custody and order her to submit to a medical examination against her will, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts in a friend-of-the-court brief submitted before a court today.

“When a woman becomes pregnant, she does not give up her constitutional rights to privacy and bodily integrity,” said Sarah Wunsch, an ACLU staff attorney. “Yet, the state is depriving her of those rights in this case.”

The ACLU’s brief argues that Corneau is being unlawfully detained and illegally restrained for the purposes of forcing a pelvic examination and other invasive treatment upon her.

A hearing is scheduled in the case today in the Juvenile Court in Attleboro.

The case involves a pregnant Massachusetts woman, Rebecca Corneau, who refuses because of her religious beliefs to undergo any kind of medical examinations or treatment. Last week, a juvenile court judge ordered the state to take Corneau into custody and submit to a physical exam because she would not comply with an earlier court order mandating that she receive daily visits from a nurse who was to monitor the pregnancy.

“The law does not require parents to undergo medical procedures to benefit their born children,” said Wunsch. “It certainly cannot force a pregnant woman to be treated on behalf of her fetus.”

“The state could not order a father, for example, to donate a kidney to his 12-year-old daughter; the state could not order a mother to donate bone marrow to her three-year-old son; nor does the state have the authority to order a pregnant woman to undergo any kind of prenatal medical examinations or care on behalf of herself or her fetus,” Wunsch explained.

Because Corneau has refused legal counsel, until the ACLU’s brief was submitted the court had received only one-sided legal arguments from a lawyer appointed to represent the fetus and from the District Attorney who sought Corneau’s incarceration.

Corneau has not been charged with a crime, nor is she being held in contempt of court. Along with other members of the religious group to which they belong, however, she and her husband have been found unfit parents, and their three children have been removed from their custody.

Wunsch said that despite troubling allegations about the group, important constitutional rights must not be ignored.

According to the ACLU’s brief, the Massachusetts child protection statute cannot be read to include a fetus within the scope of the term “child.”

If there is sufficient evidence of child abuse or neglect of children who are already born, she said, the state has the right and may indeed have an obligation to remove a newly born child from a home. It cannot, however, take the pregnant woman into custody in the name of her fetus.

The court, therefore, cannot take custody of a pregnant woman for the purpose of overseeing or regulating her behavior for the alleged benefit of her fetus. Women do not become wards of the state simply because they are pregnant. Once a child is born, however, the law permits the state to take custody when that step is necessary to protect the child.

Sign up to be the first to hear about how to take action.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release