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Samantha Burton's Ordeal at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital

Posted Feb 14 2010 9:58am
Well, Tallahassee Memorial Hospital is at it again – that is, forcing a pregnant woman to undergo medical treatment against her will.

You might remember the case of Pemberton v. Tallahassee Regional Medical Center (now Tallahassee Memorial Hospital), in which Laura Pemberton was forcibly taken from her home in active labor, put in an ambulance, taken to the hospital, and made to undergo a court-ordered cesarean.  Ms. Pemberton’s “crime”? She was trying to have a VBAC at home, attended by a midwife after no physician would attend her at the hospital.  While in labor, she went to the hospital for some IV fluids.  The doctor refused to give her the fluids, and insisted that she get a cesarean. She returned home. The hospital obtained the court order to return her back to the hospital and have a cesarean against her will. That court order was (erroneously) upheld by the federal district court in Pemberton v. Tallahassee Regional Medical Center, 66 F. Supp.2d 1247 (N.D. Fla. 1999).  

This time around, in March 2009, Tallahassee Memorial Hospital saw fit to obtain a court order to force Susan Burton to be indefinitely confined in the hospital and made submit to any and all treatments deemed necessary by her physician, Dr. Jana Bures-Forsthoefel, for the benefit of her fetus.  The doctor was concerned that Ms. Burton, a mother of two children who was suffering pregnancy complications at 25 weeks, was at risk for premature labor, and also smoked during pregnancy. 

Under the court order, Ms. Burton could conceivably have been confined to bed rest and made to undergo ordered medical treatments for 15 weeks, until her due date. Sadly, her baby was delivered stillborn by emergency cesarean 3 days later. 

Ms. Burton’s request to change hospitals and get a second opinion was denied by the Leon County Circuit Court.  She was not represented by a lawyer, and had to argue her own case to the judge by phone from her hospital bed. 

Fortunately, Ms. Burton is now being represented by a lawyer, and has appealed the Circuit court’s order that in essence treated her as a fetal incubator, made to stay in bed and submit to any treatments her doctor saw fit.  In January, oral arguments in the appeal were heard before the Florida First District Court of Appeals. 

 On appeal, Ms. Burton argues, along with the Florida ACLU as amicus curiae, that the lower court wrongly applied the state’s “parens patriae” interest (which allows the state to act in the “best interest” of an already born child) to the fetus. By applying that standard to a fetus instead of a born child, the court completely ignored Ms. Burton’s own state constitutional interests at stake in the case – her critical interests in protecting her bodily integrity and privacy.  

 The state attorney in this case, Willie Meggs, who was also involved in the Pemberton case, shows little concern for the bodily integrity and rights of pregnant women. The actions of the hospital and Dr. Bures-Forsthoefel fly in the face of ethical recommendations made by both ACOG and the AMA, t hat pregnant women should not be forced to submit to medical treatment to benefit the fetus.  And the court ruling is inconsistent with those of other courts. 

The Burton case is a cautionary story—a woman goes to her doctor with complications in her 25th week pregnancy, only to be told she cannot leave (even with two young children at home), cannot get a second opinion or go to another hospital, and must stay confined there indefinitely, as her doctor orders.  If the decision is allowed to stand, pregnant women risk being “medically kidnapped,” as one blogger put it, if their behavior is not deemed best for the fetus. All pregnant women, at least in the Tallahassee area, should be on notice that they are fair game for over-zealous hospital lawyers and physicians who fail to see pregnant women primarily as persons with constitutional rights, but instead as fetal gestators who can be forced to “behave” as they see fit.

[Our guest blogger this week is Kathy Taylor, JD, PhD, is an Associate and Lecturer at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.  You can see more about her background here .]
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