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Back in March of 2009, Samantha Burton, a woman in her 25th week of pregnancy, went to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital to get checked out for what she thought was premature labor. She was advised by Dr. Jana Bures-Forsthoefel, an attending physician at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, to stay on bed rest for up to 15 weeks. Burton (who had two toddlers at home) refused to stay in the hospital and wanted to go elsewhere for care. Instead, Circuit Court Judge John C. Cooper of Leon County granted the hospital an injunction to prevent her from leaving. She was not permitted to choose an alternate setting for her bedrest, nor was she given the opportunity to seek a second opinion. She was discharged a few days later, after she delivered a stillborn fetus via an emergency Caesarian section.
Earlier this year, the 1st District Court of Appeals heard arguments on the case Burton v. Florida. The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida and the American Medical Women's Association have collectively filed an amici curiae brief in support of Burton's legal appeal. (It is worth noting that Burton is not seeking any monetary damages and only wishes to protect other women from the injustices she suffered.)
The Florida Department of Health lists, among other things, the right of a patient to refuse any medical advice or treatment and the right to express concerns about his or her treatment. So, what compelled the State of Florida to override Samantha Burton's very basic patient rights? It appears that it had very little to do with Burton's health and everything to do with the way that two individuals, Dr. Forsthoefel and Judge Cooper, perceived the status of her gestating fetus.
Now obviously Ms. Burton's mistreatment sets a pretty dangerous precedent and brings up some pressing concerns about the evolution of the anti-choice movement, particularly the way that it has been able to slowly chip away at Roe v. Wade through the backdoor. For one, the line of logic followed by the hospital and the courts grants personhood status to the fetus. Note the disturbing language used in the court proceedings:
"the unborn child's attending physician"Even though abortion was never an issue in Burton's case, this language has everything to do with reproductive freedom. The debate over the concept of fetus as patient, brings to mind Janet Gallagher’s "geography of pregnancy". For those unfamiliar, the basic concept is that by viewing the fetus as a separate person and patient, its medical treatment ultimately requires invading the body of its mother. Samantha Burton's attorney, David Abrams, put it well: "Does the state own the inside of a woman's womb, that it can kind of intervene at will?" Granting a fetus personhood is inherently contradictory to maintaining the rights and dignity of the person carrying it.
"preserve the life and health of Samantha Burton's unborn child"
"the child’s best interest at this time” [emphasis mine]
Although this concept may seem fair and understandable, the push for fetal personhood is gaining new fuel in the face of contemporary anti-choice politics. Fetal personhood initiatives have somehow squirmed their way back into the constant legal and cultural war waged on female bodies. There also currently exist state laws that require an ultrasound be performed prior to an abortion, a 24-hour waiting period, or pre-abortion "counseling" (which, in some areas includes providing information on the unproven link between abortion and breast cancer). "Conscience clause" laws allow individuals - and institutions - to refuse to dispense prescriptions or perform procedures based on religious objection. Laws like these not only corner patients in difficult positions but also shame women out of their body autonomy.
The Florida courts took this one step further when they granted a medical practitioner the privilege of determining where and for how long Samantha Burton would receive medical services against her will. At this point, one can no longer make the "well, a woman can choose to go to a different hospital or doctor" argument. The stakes are much higher. Consider some of the main principles of medical ethics: Autonomy (a patient has the right to choose or refuse treatment); Beneficence (a practioner should act in the best interest of the patient); Non-maleficence (a practioner must consider the possible harm that any intervention might do, i.e. "first, do no harm"); Dignity (a patient has the right to human dignity and respect)...
Now consider how Burton's doctor disregarded these ethics...
There is a difference of opinion among medical experts about how effective bed rest really is in cases like this. Whereas it is commonly agreed that high levels of stress can be detrimental to a gestating fetus. It's safe to assume that being locked in a hospital against her wishes would not only be upsetting, but potentially a danger to Burton's pregnancy and overall health. If she felt that she was receiving insufficient or inappropriate care from a medical practitioner that did not have her best interests in mind, she should have been entitled to seek out a second opinion or go to another facility.
State attorney Willie Meggs, who represented the hospital in obtaining the original court order, apparently disagreed:
"Sometimes there is not time for two doctors. It's not time for a committee."
"This is good people trying to do things in a right fashion to save lives, whether some people want them saved or not."To that, we say Fuck you Willie Meggs. When it comes to my body, I'm willing to take the time for a second opinion, especially when I outright disagree with the first one. But the second quote really just takes the cake. There's never been any indication that Samantha Burton - or anyone else for that matter - didn't want the life of her fetus "saved". She just didn't believe that forced bedrest was the best way to do it. When a hospital can treat a pregnant women like a prisoner, utterly disregarding her rights and dignity, on the basis of "protecting" her fetus... what does that say about our society?
We have got to give women the right and responsibility to control their own bodies. Incidents like what happened at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital threaten not only the most basic patient rights, but also a woman's reproductive rights. We can't let that happen. Maybe the pro-choice movement needs to step up our efforts in protecting body autonomy rights, even when they don't explicity involve abortion. Spreading the word about what Samantha Burton went through is one small step towards that goal.