Florida woman ‘imprisoned’ in hospital to save baby

Why do bioethical dilemmas flourish in Florida? After the right-to-die case of Terri Schiavo rivetted the nation in 2004, another unusual and far-reaching case has surfaced in the courts. This time the issue is a woman's right over her own body.

Last year a Tallahassee hospital secured a court order to confine a pregnant woman to her bed to protect her baby.

Samantha Burton, a 29-year-old mother of two, was 25 weeks pregnant. Her membranes had ruptured, she had contractions and the foetus was in breech position. Her doctor, Jana Bures-Foresthoefel, thought that there was a danger of infection or miscarriage. She ordered Ms Burton to stop smoking and to stay in bed. Ms Burton demurred. She was unhappy with Tallahassee Memorial Hospital and wanted to go home.

Instead, hospital lawyers showed up and handed Ms Burton a phone. She found herself defending her plans with Circuit Judge John Cooper. Judge Cooper supported the hospital and ordered her to stay. Under Florida law, he declared, a child's welfare overrides its parent's. He even barred her from seeing another doctor.

In the end, the court order did not save the baby. Ms Burton had an emergency caesarean three days later but the baby was still-born. Then she was allowed to go home.

This was not the end of the story. Ms Burton was very angry. In the words of her lawyer, "She wound up basically nothing more than an incubator for the state. The court order made only the fetus a patient." As a matter of principle, she wants the judge's order retrospectively rescinded. Otherwise, says her lawyer, "Any time a woman gets pregnant the state could come in and run her life."

The American Civil Liberties Union says that the court order was unconstitutional. "Ms. Burton's bodily integrity, privacy, and autonomous decision-making were given no consideration, let alone respected," wrote the ACLU in a brief. "The state failed to consider the fallibility of the single medical opinion presented in this case or the reality, unfortunately demonstrated in this case, that forced medical interventions cannot guarantee the preservation of fetal life."

The First District Court of Appeal is still considering the case, which is beginning to attract nation-wide attention. Writing in the Huffington Post, freelance bioethicist Jacob M. Appel described it as one of the “most egregious abuses perpetrated against a patient by her caregiver since the triumph of the patients' rights movement in the 1970s.” ~ Tallahassee Democrat, Jan 18; Huffington Post, Jan 24

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