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Case on Court-Ordered Bed Rest Highlights Reproductive Rights Concerns for Pregnant Women

January 13, 2010

Via a message from Aunt B, I learned of this Florida case in which Samantha Burton, a pregnant woman, visited her doctor with sins of a potential miscarriage at ~25 weeks. The doctor ordered bed rest, which Burton declined with the intent of seeking a second opinion, as she believed her two existing young children and keeping her job would make bed rest untenable. The doctor then contacted the state.

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.

I am appalled. But I am not surprised.

In the U.S., we have abortion laws that effectively say that – beyond a certain point in pregnancy, when the fetus gets big enough, or viable enough – a fetus’s right to life is held as worth more than a woman’s right to control what is happening in her own body. We restrict abortions after that point. We tend to say, in short, that we as a society – rather than leaving the decision to the pregnant woman whose body is being used to sustain the pregnancy – prefer for the fetus to be born at any expense to the woman short of death.

A court case such as this one illustrates the varied forms that “expense” might take. The NY Times points to an ACLU rep’s statement at Daily Kos which neatly sums up the problem:

Don’t get me wrong — of course I want pregnant women to follow their doctor’s advice. But I do not think that pregnant women should be confined against their will if they are unwilling or unable to do so. If we allow the government to confine a pregnant woman for not following orders to remain in bed, what’s next? Will we forcibly hospitalize pregnant women for having a glass of wine with dinner? Or eating too much fast food? What if they don’t take their prenatal vitamins? Or miss their doctor’s appointments? What if a pregnant woman refuses a cesarean section? 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.

Of course, our government very much does interfere with a “a woman’s personal private medical decisions” with regard to abortion – this is just one more vision of that same interference.

Additionally, it is quite common when people talk about birth – about difficulties finding facilities that “allow” VBACs, of wanting to avoid cesarean section if not absolutely necessary, of wanting to avoid interventions as much as possible – to hear an argument that the woman’s “experience” does not matter, that the “only thing that matters” is getting a healthy baby at the end. In that framework, a woman’s desires are readily ignored (and made to seem trivial) in favor of doing *everything possible* for the fetus, and court intervention with regards to bed rest is not so extreme. We have already seen cases in which court-ordered cesareans have occurred; this to me seems very much along those same lines.

In both cases – abortion and issues around birth, c-section, and other interventions – the fetus is prioritized. I disagree, in both cases, but am not at all surprised that such a framework – in which a woman’s bodily autonomy and preferences for how her pregnant body is treated and used are held secondary to fetal outcomes – could result in court interference. This is a very clear example then, that what we talk about when we talk about reproductive rights is not just abortion, but about a whole system in which people other than the individual woman are allowed rights to control her reproduction.*

The ACLU argued in its amicus brief on the case that such interference “invites State requests for court intervention in nearly all aspects of pregnant women’s behavior and medical judgments,” and may discourage women from seeking care – “In turn, some women will be discouraged from coming to a hospital for pregnancy care if they know that any disagreement may lead to forced medical treatment.” I would argue that we already see this result when women hear about court-ordered cesareans and refused VBACs and providers who treat them without respect for their wishes and begin to seek alternatives such as home birth.

Oral arguments in the case bean this week; archives should be available at

For more on issues related to the rights of pregnant women, see the National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

*Leaving aside for the moment both refused and forced sterilization, demonization of poor mothers, and other related issues of reproductive justice.

Added: The Unnecesarean also has a couple of past posts on the case.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Florida is Crazy Anyway permalink
    January 25, 2010 12:32 pm

    I have lived in Florida on several occasions and I can say honestly that the laws and most of the lawmakers are crazy anyway. If I had been that woman I would have certainly appealed because there is no way she should be kidnapped and all but literally strapped down to a bed in some hospital that she doesn’t want to be in, letting some doctor who she doesn’t want, touch her in exams, or stress her out any more than she probably already was. In fact, if I were her I’d find a lawyer and sue the doctor, the hospital and the judge.

  2. DeeMay permalink
    February 14, 2010 7:04 pm

    I was reading your blogs and found this to be of interest to me because I am a mother who had to be on bedrest for all four of my pregnancies (3 which ended in fetal demise)and I could not even imagine being ordered by the court to be on bedrest let alone stay in a hospital that I did not want to be at.As a nurse and mother, I know that the baby is directly affected by the mothers stress level and feelings. Pregnancy is suppose to be happy time not a time of stress.


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