TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Samantha Burton wanted to leave the hospital. Her doctor strongly disagreed, enough to go to court to keep her there.
She smoked cigarettes during the first six months of her pregnancy and was admitted on a false alarm of premature labor. Her doctor argued she was risking a miscarriage if she didn't quit smoking immediately and stay on bed rest in the hospital, and a judge agreed.
Three days after the judge ordered her not to leave the hospital, Burton delivered a stillborn fetus by cesarian-section.
And six months after the pregnancy ended, the dispute over the legal move to keep her in the hospital continues, raising questions about where a mother's right to decide her own medical treatment ends and where the priority of protecting a fetus begins.
"The entire experience was horrible and I am still very upset about it," Burton said through her lawyer. "I hope nobody else has to go through what I went through."
Burton, who declined to be interviewed, is appealing the judge's order. She isn't asking for money but hopes to keep her case from setting a precedent for legal control over women with problem pregnancies. She also worries it could prevent women from seeking prenatal care.
State Attorney Willie Meggs stands by his decision to seek the court order after being contacted by the hospital. "This is good people trying to do things in a right fashion to save lives," he said, "whether some people want them saved or not."
There are a lot of questions raised by this story, not the least of which is the odd conflict between a state trying to save an unborn child and that same state aiding women in the killing of their unborn children. Sooner or later we're going to have to start dealing with the fact that at the very least, it should not be legal to abort a viable unborn human, precisely because of the double standard created when a state intervenes in a case like this one.
But though I read the whole article, and would encourage you to do the same, I still have a lot of questions. Burton is arguing that she should have been allowed to leave the hospital and go home--yet within three days her child had died in utero and was delivered stillborn. Was her medical condition, then, admittedly too fragile for her to leave?
Burton also thinks she wasn't given the proper standard of care and should have been allowed to seek a second opinion or go to a different hospital--but the article never says why this didn't happen. A different article suggests a possibility:
After examining Burton, Dr. Jana Bures-Forsthoefel found the 29-year-old mother of two had a ruptured membrane, had started contractions and was at risk of infection or premature birth, jeopardizing her health and the life of her unborn child.
Burton was ordered to immediately quit smoking and stay in the hospital on bed rest for the remainder of her pregnancy, but Burton didn't like that idea. She wasn't happy with care she was getting and wanted to go to another hospital and get a second opinion. She wanted to be able to go home.
So here we learn that Burton's health was also at risk--an important consideration, given that many news sources are spinning this story as "Court treats woman like incubator" in their coverage of it. Not only was Burton at risk of a miscarriage, but she herself, according to the doctor, was risking infection and possibly dangerous health consequences. Had she insisted on leaving the hospital and suffered these consequences in addition to the loss of her baby, would she have sued the hospital for letting her leave? It would certainly have been possible for her to do so.
And a little more searching uncovers some more details:
Burton was in her 25th week of pregnancy in March 2009 when she started showing signs of miscarrying. Her doctor advised her to go on bed rest, possibly for as long as 15 weeks, but she told him that she had two toddlers to care for and a job to keep. She planned on getting a second opinion, but the doctor alerted the state, which then asked the Circuit Court of Leon County to step in. [Emphasis added--E.M.]
Was the doctor's action in getting the court to back up the bed-rest orders justified from a medical perspective? Samantha Burton was essentially informing the doctor that she had no intention of resting. She was going to continue working at her blue-collar job (though none of the articles I've seen so far mention what that job was) and taking care of two small children, despite serious dangers to her own health and to the life and health of her unborn child. What, given that knowledge, was the doctor supposed to do?
Most of what I've read seems to think that the doctor was supposed to respect Burton's wishes and let her leave regardless of the consequences. If the doctor had done this, though, and Burton had perished along with her unborn baby, would we be reading headlines instead that say "Doctor allowed gravely ill maternity patient to leave hospital," with accompanying cries for the revocation of the doctor's license and sanctions against the hospital?
I acknowledge the danger of letting doctors have this much control over a patient's autonomy. There are many circumstances in which a patient is pressured or all but coerced into following doctors' orders, only to learn later that the doctor was wrong. I do think it should have been possible for Samantha Burton to call in an extra doctor to examine her, even if she had to remain in the same hospital for the examination--provided the doctor in question was also an ob-gyn with some experience in cases like Burton's.
But given the details revealed in this story, I have to think that any respectable ob-gyn would have confirmed the original doctor's diagnosis: the mother was risking infection, the baby was at risk of premature birth, and Burton should stay put. Since her child did, in fact, most sadly die in utero, it seems that this was not an erroneous diagnosis or misplaced concern.
And that brings us back to the central question: an adult is free to leave a hospital even if he or she is dying; he/she is allowed to refuse even lifesaving treatment. But a parent can't remove a gravely ill child from that sort of care without the intervention of the state--so into what category does a pregnant woman fall? Can she, in a post-Roe world, refuse to let a doctor try to save her unborn child? Is the unborn child hers to kill through neglect just as he/she is hers to kill through direct abortion?
That, essentially, is what Samantha Burton's lawyers are arguing.