Constitutional Law

Pregnant Pro Se Mom Argued Treatment Case from Hospital Bed & Lost; Will Lawyer Win Appeal?


Already the mother of two daughters, Samantha Burton had obtained prenatal care for her third pregnancy and voluntarily went to the hospital when she experienced symptoms she’d been told to look out for, in the hope of saving her baby, according to her lawyer.

When the 29-year-old questioned the medical advice and care she received there, however, and sought to leave, Tallahassee Memorial Hospital got a Florida judge to order her to submit to the treatment its doctors ordered, including bed rest at the facility, reports the Associated Press. Her stillborn baby was delivered by cesarian section three days later.

Now, in a closely watched case that pits Burton’s constitutional rights against those of her fetus, a Florida appeals court is mulling whether the state had the right to order her to submit to specific medical treatment, against her wishes and, at least arguably, without considering other viable options. Although a reversal would come too late, of course, to uphold Burton’s claimed constitutional rights concerning the forced treatment at Florida Memorial Hospital, it would, she says through her lawyer, David Abrams, help prevent other women from going through a similar “horrible” experience that is still very upsetting to her, the AP reports.

The hospital and its doctors declined to comment. However, State Attorney Willie Meggs, who handled the case after the hospital reportedly brought the matter to his office, says the emergency situation—doctors feared a miscarriage—and the threat to the life of Burton’s fetus justified the judge’s decision, after a telephone hearing, that the best interest of her unborn child trumped Burton’s constitutional rights to privacy and to refuse medical treatment.

Burton argued her case alone, unrepresented by counsel, from her hospital bed during the telephone conference call court hearing, reports the Tallahassee Democrat. The hospital’s legal counsel, E. Murray Moore Jr., argued against her in the Leon County case, having been appointed a special assistant state attorney by Meggs for the purpose.

“This is good people trying to do things in a right fashion to save lives, whether some people want them saved or not,” Meggs tells the AP, contending that there was no time to seek a second opinion.

Burton, represented by Abrams and backed by attorney Diana Kasdan, who is reportedly representing both the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Medical Women’s Association in the case, says the judge’s ruling, if allowed to stand, creates a worrisome precedent. Her symptoms weren’t all that unusual, she wasn’t in labor, and there were a number of treatment options, including bed rest at home, that would have been appropriate for her and allowed her to take better care of her two daughters there, she and the lawyers contend.

Instead, the judge ordered Burton to comply with the hospital’s medical decisions, in what Kasdan calls a potentially “horrible precedent” that could allow the state to oversee not only what treatment a pregnant woman must get but what she can eat and drink. (Burton’s smoking was one issue in the case; a doctor she describes as brusque and overbearing was another.)

“She wound up basically nothing more than an incubator for the state,” her lawyer, David Abrams, told the Democrat after oral arguments at the appeals court earlier this month. “The court order made only the fetus a patient.”

But counsel for the office of state Attorney General Bill McCollum contended that the circuit court judge who ordered Burton’s treatment got it right, crafting an order that was timely, careful and as limited as possible, while correctly recognizing that the state’s interest in the life of her unborn child, for a time, trumped her constitutional rights, the newspaper reports.

Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeal heard arguments in the case earlier this month but has not yet ruled.

Additional and related coverage:

ABAJournal.com (Dec. 2008): “5-Time Mom Sues Doc Over Alleged Labor From Hell”

News Service of Florida: “Appeals Court Weighs Rights of Pregnant Mothers”

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