Two pregnant prisoners

by Jay Johansen

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I read two news stories recently, and couldn't help but be struck by the comparison.

Story number one

On November 20, 1999, Judge Edwin Kosik ruled that a Pennsylvania prison must permit a pregnant prisoner to have an abortion if that was her choice. The prison must transport her to the abortion facility, and if the prisoner is unable to pay for the abortion herself, then the government must pay for it.

The prisoner, identified only as "K. P." in court documents, was an inmate at Luzerne County Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania. The prison had no facilities for performing an abortion, so she requested that she be released so that she could get an abortion at a local abortion center. The prison refused, pointing to a policy that prisoners were only permitted to have abortions if they were "medically necessary". In the judge's decision, he said that a prisoner's decision to have an abortion, regardless of the circumstances, automatically makes it "medically necessary".

K.P. was represented by the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy.

Story number two

On September 11, 2000, Judge Kenneth Nasif ordered Rebecca Corneau to submit to medical tests to determine the health of her unborn baby. Mrs Corneau is a member of a religious sect that does not believe in doctors or modern medicine. Her previous child, Jeremiah, died shortly after birth, and authorities suspected this was due to her refusal to receive medical care for herself or the child. When Mrs Corneau refused to permit the medical exams, the judge ordered that she be put in prison and the exams be done by a prison nurse. Mrs Corneau is technically not under arrest, nor has she been charged with any crime.

While Mrs Corneau refuses any legal assistance -- her religion does not believe in lawyers either -- a number of groups are trying to intervene with the courts on her behalf, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for Women.

Bristol County (Massachusetts) District Attorney Paul F. Walsh, who requested the judge's action, said, "People will try to inject constitutional issues into this case, but I don't see those arguments as pertinent. For me, this was about saving a baby. It's a case, not a cause. For others getting in now, it's a cause. They don't care about the case."

The court has appointed a guardian for the other children of members of the sect.

The contradiction

Isn't the contradiction here obvious? In one case, a court puts a women in jail in order to protect her unborn baby from the harm she might cause by improper care. In the other case, a court orders that a jail must help a woman to deliberately kill her unborn baby.

There is no reason to believe that Mrs Corneau wants anything less than the best for her baby. The problem is that the court believes that the best thing for the baby is examination and treatment at a modern hospital, while Mrs Corneau believes the best thing is herbal remedies administered at home. Despite our national heritage of individual liberty, the court nevertheless decided that Mrs Corneau's ideas about health were wrong, and that the unborn baby's rights were more important than the mother's rights to her medical and religious beliefs.

Why is it that in one case our government says that a woman's right to choose includes the right to have the state transport her to an abortion facility and pay for her abortion, while in another case a woman's right to choose does not include the right to use herbal remedies and have her baby at home instead of in a hospital?

A hypothetical case

Indeed, these two cases bring an interesting thought to mind. Suppose a woman wants to have an abortion but can't afford it. So she arranges for a friend to "report" to a social worker that she has refused pre-natal care for her baby. When the social workers come around to check she prattles about bizarre religious beliefs that forbid her from having pre-natal care: doctors are the foot-soldiers of Satan or some such. So they get a court order and have her taken to a prison hospital to protect the baby. Once there, she declares that she wants to have an abortion. Now the prison is required to take her to the abortion center and pay for the abortion. The courts efforts to protect the baby will instantly be transformed into assistance in deliberately killing the baby. The very policemen who carried the woman off to jail because she was neglecting her baby may now be carrying her to the abortion center to help her destroy him. What a clever way to get a free abortion!

Posted 23 Sep 2000.

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