Fetus' custody subject of hearing Case concerns protection of unborn from mother

February 02, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WAUKESHA, Wis. -- In the next few months, the Wisconsin Supreme Court is expected to decide whether county officials in this Milwaukee suburb acted legally when they took custody of an unborn child a month before its due date.

The pregnant woman was using cocaine, drugging the developing baby. The local social services agency asked a Juvenile Court judge to place the fetus in Waukesha Memorial Hospital. The judge issued a detention order to the Waukesha County sheriff.

The 24-year-old addict carrying the fetus had no say in the matter. She was not under arrest or charged with any crime. Yet she was confined.

The county's attorney, Assistant Corporation Counsel William J. Domina, says that what happened to Angela M. W. in September 1995 is a logical extension of the case of Roe vs. Wade.

His position, affirmed by the state Appeals Court, has heartened some youth justice experts. But it has upset some women's law specialists and public health advocates, who contend that it would result in juvenile courts acting as pregnancy police, overseeing an expectant mother's way of life.

Twenty-four years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Roe that a woman had a right to choose whether to have an abortion or carry her pregnancy to term. But as the fetus grows, the Supreme Court ruled, the state's interest -- its right to intervene and regulate -- grows as well.

"Choice entails responsibility," said Margaret M. Zimmer, another assistant corporation counsel on the case. "That's been given too little attention."

The National Association of Counsel for Children and the prosecutor in neighboring Milwaukee County weighed in with legal briefs in support of recognizing the Juvenile Court's authority over unborn babies. Eleven health, women's and children's organizations banded together to argue against seizing fetuses and depriving pregnant women of their liberty. They say the Roe decision applies only to the power to restrict abortion.

"If the lower court's misinterpretation of Roe vs. Wade is upheld, pregnant women who smoke or live with a smoker or maintain a poor diet or fail to take medications could be subjected to an order of protective custody to ensure that they change their behavior and provide 'a safe environment in the womb' for their fetus," wrote attorneys representing 11 groups, ranging from the American Public Health Association to the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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