Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Fetal obligations: Federal judge: more rights for the unborn

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

Following the tragic shooting in Kansas last month, pro-choice advocates have been dealt another disheartening setback: a federal judge in Bangor has recognized a new right of fetuses — to be protected from diseases carried by their mothers — that could become a key element in the nation’s ongoing abortion debate.

In May, Judge John Woodcock Jr., the chief federal judge in Maine, ordered an HIV-positive pregnant woman from Cameroon, who pleaded guilty to possessing false immigration documents, to remain in federal prison until after her expected delivery date in order to protect the child’s welfare. The judge said he worried that if Quinta Layin Tuleh was released or in the custody of immigration officials — who are seeking to deport her — she would not have access to medication that can prevent HIV transmission from a mother to her fetus.

“My obligation is to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant, and that public, it seems to me at this point, should likely include that child she’s carrying,” ruled Woodcock, a Bowdoin College and UMaine Law graduate who was appointed to the federal bench in 2003 by President George W. Bush. “I don’t think the transfer of HIV to an unborn child is a crime technically under the law, but it is as direct and as likely as an ongoing assault.”

Woodcock went on to say that he has an “obligation to do what I can to protect that person, when that person is born, from permanent and ongoing harm.” Having admitted that he would have released Tuleh on time served if not for her medical conditions, he remanded her to federal prison for 238 more days.

This sets out an argument that, legal experts say, if taken to its logical conclusion, could be used by a court to protect a fetus from its mother. (At the moment, fetal rights are generally limited to protection from strangers acting without the consent of the mother — as when someone who assaults or murders a pregnant woman can be charged with two offenses: one for the attack on the mother, and one for the attack on the fetus.) It also contradicts a key element of current abortion rights: namely, that a mother is allowed to do what she wishes with a fetus, including abort it.

Maine activist groups are reeling, with some worrying that it could mark a dangerous precedent for so-called negligent mothers. “When are you allowed to lock up a pregnant woman?” asks Zachary Heiden, the legal director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union. Can a pregnant woman convicted of a crime be sentenced to jail solely to ensure she takes prenatal vitamins, or stays away from junk food?

Women’s issues and reproductive-rights organizations, as well as those dealing with immigration questions, HIV status, and prisoner treatment, have also huddled to craft responses.

“It’s crazy that we live in a country where you have to be in prison to get health care,” says Ben Chin, the Maine People’s Alliance’s federal-issues organizer, who believes that if our immigration laws were reformed to allow people who are here to legalize their status, this issue would not even have come up. “She was here to work, she was contributing to the economy,” he says. Jailing her and sending her out of the country does neither her nor the country any good.

Peter Rice, legal director of the Augusta-based Disability Rights Center, notes that HIV-positive status is a disability under federal law, and says Tuleh “was imprisoned for her disability,” which is against the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (That law, however, does not specifically apply to federal judges handing down criminal sentences.)

Another curious wrinkle to this case: federal prosecutors objected to the sentence, and have appealed it to the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, which is expected to hear arguments by August. “I’ve never heard of a prosecutor appealing” when the judge’s sentence is longer than the government requested, says Heiden. Both his organization and the Disability Rights Center are considering supporting the appeal.

Paula Silsby, the US Attorney for Maine, declined to comment, saying it was an ongoing case. Judge Woodcock did not return calls seeking comment.