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Wisconsin jails pregnant woman and gives her fetus – but not her – a lawyer

By Travis Gettys
Friday, October 25, 2013 12:48 EDT
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A pregnant woman walks on August 5, 2010 in Washington, DC. (AFP)
 
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A Wisconsin mother-to-be is challenging her state’s fetal protection law after she was arrested following a prenatal visit where she admitted taking a drug used to treat painkiller dependency.

Alicia Beltran said she was 12 weeks pregnant when she visited a health clinic July 2 near her home in Jackson, Wisc., for a checkup.

Then 28 years old, Beltran said she admitted to struggling with a past addiction to Percocet and taking an acquaintance’s prescribed Suboxone because she lacked health insurance and could not afford the anti-opioid medication herself.

Beltran said she told the medical assistant she’d been self-administering the medication in decreasing doses and had last taken it several days earlier.

She said the physician’s assistant recommended that she renew her use of Suboxone, but under a doctor’s care, and Beltran said she declined.

The expectant mother was then asked to take a drug test, which she said turned up negative for all substances except for Suboxone.

Beltran said a social worker visited her two weeks later and suggested she continue Suboxone treatment under doctor supervision but she again declined.

Two days later, Beltran was arrested and taken in handcuffs to a hospital, where she was examined by a physician.

Her lawyers said the pregnancy was determined to be normal and healthy, but she was taken to jail and ordered by a judge to spend 90 days in a drug treatment center.

Beltran’s attorneys argued that the pregnant woman was being penalized for providing honest information to a health care provider without knowing that it could be used against her in court.

At her initial hearing, her attorneys say, the judge told Belran that she would not have an attorney present but one had been appointed to represent her fetus.

Under a 1998 Wisconsin law, known as the “cocaine mom” act, the courts can forcibly confine pregnant women who use illegal drugs or alcohol “to a severe degree” and who refuses to accept treatment.

Beltran’s attorneys says she wasn’t using any controlled substances when she was arrested and filed the first federal challenge to the law in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee.

The suit argues that the law is vague and lacking in medical terminology, which attorneys argue leave too much room for interpretation.

Attorneys also argued that Beltran’s due process, privacy and physical liberty were violated by her arrest.

Under such laws, argued Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women and one of Beltran’s attorneys, “the woman loses pretty much every constitutional right we associate with personhood.”

Experts say criminal prosecutions and forced drug or psychiatric treatment of pregnant women has increased in recent years, jumping from 413 such cases between 1973-2005 and 300 since.

But Paltrow said those cases were likely undercounted because they often aren’t publicly reported due to juvenile privacy protections.

Three of the 17 states that currently consider substance abuse by pregnant women to be child abuse require pregnant women to be forced into mental health or substance abuse treatment facilities.

Beltran said she lost her food service job after she was sent two hours away to a women’s care facility and could be taken back into custody or ordered to return to treatment because her case remains open.

She had scheduled to stand trial Oct. 29, but county witnesses would not be available then and the judge recused himself because he knew some witnesses, and the trial has not been rescheduled.

But if she’s convicted, Beltran could be ordered to attend counseling or mandatory drug treatment, undergo supervision by a social service agency or have her parental rights terminated once her child is born.

The baby, Beltran’s first, is due in January.

 
 
 
 
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