In partnership with National Advocates for Pregnant Women, faculty and students associated with our Human Rights and Gender Justice (HRGJ) clinic successfully urged U.N. experts to recognize that detaining pregnant women suspected of drug use discriminates against women and violates their right to be free from arbitrary detention.
On Monday, October 24, 2016 the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention expressed concern for a growing trend of civil laws in the U.S. that permit the confinement of pregnant women suspected of drug or alcohol use. The Working Group underscored that deprivation of liberty on this basis is “obviously gendered and discriminatory in its reach and application.” The Working Group urged that the U.S. adopt alternative measures that do not deprive women of their liberty, and take affirmative steps to maximize funding for health care services. The Working Group also advised that federal funding for drug treatment should be made contingent on the elimination of state or local practices that threaten maternal health by authorizing involuntary detention.
The Working Group’s preliminary statement comes at the conclusion of a 10-day visit to the U.S. examining the circumstances and conditions under which individuals are detained across the country. The findings from this visit will be discussed when they return to Geneva and will be the basis of a report to the Human Rights Committee expected in September 2017.
Tammy Loertscher, who met with the Working Group during their visit, made the following statement: “On behalf of all the women whose voices could not be heard, I thank the Working Group for listening to us: pregnant women, women, families. I thank my son for being my encouragement to keep going.”
Ms. Loertscher spoke to the Working Group about her experience in Wisconsin, one of five states in the U.S. that currently allow for the detention and forced treatment of women suspected of being pregnant and using drugs. Hundreds of pregnant women in Wisconsin have been reported to authorities for “unborn child” abuse. Because these reports and the proceedings that may follow are confidential, it is difficult to determine how many women were then subjected to forced treatment and detention. The Alicia Beltran case, however, is well documented.
Advocates are optimistic that the Working Group’s report will shed light on the problematic nature of state laws that permit the involuntary detention of pregnant women.
Nancy Rosenbloom, director of legal advocacy for National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) explained: “The Working Group affirmed what our client, Tammy Loertscher, already knew to be true: these laws are discriminatory and counterproductive. Pregnancy is not a justification for stripping people of their human rights.”
Not only do these laws deprive women of their liberty but they also defy recommendations of medical and public health experts. Punitive measures such as these laws undermine maternal and fetal health by deterring women from seeking prenatal care and full disclosure of their medical history.
Prof. Cindy Soohoo, director of the Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law said: “The U.S. now needs to make these recommendations a reality by ensuring that more funding is available to address the gap in health care and drug treatment programs catering to the needs of pregnant women.”
The Working Group’s complete preliminary statement is available here: tinyurl.com/jo5rt2h
Director, Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic
CUNY School of Lawcynthia.firstname.lastname@example.org
Director of Legal Advocacy
National Advocates for Pregnant Women