Appeals Court Weighs Rights of Pregnant Mothers
A Tallahassee-based appeals court on Tuesday heard arguments in a case that could set the future standard on the state's ability to force a pregnant mother to comply with a doctor's orders.
In March 2009, a Leon County circuit judge ordered Samantha Burton, a pregnant mother of two, to be confined to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital and undergo all medical treatments proposed by her doctor to save the fetus she was carrying. Burton's child was eventually delivered by cesarean section, but was stillborn.
Burton had experienced problems with her pregnancy, and her doctors had suggested she be hospitalized. But Burton wanted to explore other options and declined to be admitted. Doctors, saying they feared for the viability of the pregnancy, then got a judge to order Burton to be confined to the hospital.
Lawyers for Burton and the American Civil Liberties Union argued that Burton – and in similar circumstances, other women – was in the best position to make such a decision and that the court ignored Burton's right to privacy. They also argued that the circuit court relied improperly on a legal standard that focused on the best interest of the child.
“There was never any finding of what was in the best interest of Samantha Burton,” said her attorney David Abrams.
ACLU attorney Diana Kasden, who also represented the American Medical Women’s Association, submitted a supporting brief on behalf of Burton, and argued that many obstetricians and medical groups argue that working with the mother is usually what is in the best interest of both he mother and child because it keeps the situation low stress.
Burton was not refusing medical treatment, Kasden argued, but simply wanted to be able to go home with her two other children. Other options could have been pursued, she said, such as home nursing, and noted that if the appeals court sided with the state it would set an “unconstitutional and dangerous precedent.”.
One member of the three judge panel, Judge William A. Van Nortwick, asked both sides whether they would concede that the state did have a right to step in at some point. The judges also acknowledged some difficulties with the case, because there was no transcript of the circuit court hearing available, so there were no documents to back up what went into the judge's decision to issue the order confining Burton to the hospital.
Lisa Raleigh, a lawyer with Attorney General Bill McCollum’s office, which is representing the state, said the trial judge was “doing all the right things” when he issued the order. As part of his decision, the judge ordered that social services be contacted to help the family and that a lawyer be appointed for Burton. He also asked that all parties come back to him with a report within five days, so that the situation could be re-evaluated.
“He is clearly appropriately weighing the constitutional issues in this case,” Raleigh said.
There’s no set timeline for when the appeals court must rule on the case.