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Kentucky: Do the Right Thing (Again)

December 10th, 2009 • Contributed by Dahlia Ward

 By Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project , Originally posted on the ACLU’s Blog of Rights

This morning, the Kentucky Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Cochran v. Commonwealth, a case that could have enormous consequences for healthy moms and babies in that state.

Ms. Cochran’s road to Kentucky’s Supreme Court has been a long one. Almost four years ago, Ms. Cochran gave birth to a baby girl. Her daughter allegedly tested positive for cocaine, and for that alone, Ms. Cochran was charged with felony child abuse. However, before her case could go to trial, the court dismissed the prosecution. The court was right: Ms. Cochran never should have been charged. In 1993, in Commonwealth v. Welch (the ACLU represented Ms. Welch in that case), the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that Kentucky’s criminal laws could not be used to punish women who become and choose to remain pregnant despite a substance abuse problem.

You might think that the court’s dismissal of her case would have been the end of Ms. Cochran’s ordeal; unfortunately it was not. The state appealed, arguing that in later cases the Kentucky Supreme Court had actually reversed itself, even though it could point to no explicit language where the court had done so. Surprisingly, the appeals court agreed (though not one of the three judges on that court agreed for the same reason). With the law now totally in flux, the state Supreme Court accepted the case to settle the issue — again — of whether becoming and remaining pregnant is ever a crime in the state of Kentucky.

The ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Ms. Cochran, not only because we believe Welch is still good law, but, more fundamentally, because using criminal laws to punish pregnant women who are struggling with addiction makes for bad law and even worse public policy. If a pregnant woman can be charged with a crime for potentially harming her fetus, then literally everything she does or does not do — including choosing to continue her pregnancy to term despite an underlying health condition — could land her in jail. What if a pregnant woman has a glass of wine with dinner now and then, or lives with a smoker; what if she drives over the speed limit, fails to get regular pre-natal care, or works in a coal mine, as many women in Kentucky do?

Allowing the government to exercise such unlimited control over women’s bodies, and every aspect of their lives, would essentially reduce pregnant women to second-class citizens, denying them the basic constitutional rights enjoyed by the rest of us.

Moreover, from a public health perspective, these prosecutions are simply counterproductive. Fifty-nine organizations and experts, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Kentucky Psychiatric Medical Association, joined friend-of-the-court briefs in this case, explaining that punitive approaches to improving fetal health just don’t work. Seems obvious, right? By forcing doctors to turn in their own patients, these prosecutions only drive women away from the health care and treatment they need. If the state of Kentucky was truly interested in supporting healthy moms and babies, these groups point out, it would not be violating its own laws to throw the pregnant women who need health care the most in jail.

We are hopeful that the Kentucky Supreme Court will agree and uphold nearly two decades of sound law and policy in the state of Kentucky. Indeed, the court’s decision will have ramifications beyond Ms. Cochran’s case. At least two other women have been charged with similar “crimes” since Ms. Cochran’s arrest. Our efforts should be focused on ensuring that pregnant women with underlying health conditions can get the care they need. Hopefully, this case will set us squarely on that path.

If  you or someone you know has been prosecuted or threatened with prosecution for allegedly harming their fetus, please contact us.  Any information you provide will be treated as confidential.  You can email or send a letter to the Reproductive Freedom Project at 125 Broad Street, 18th floor, NY, NY 10004.  For more information about the ACLU’s work on pregnancy prosecutions and other reproductive freedom issues, please visit

Comments Off • Posted in: Uncategorized

Keep Abortions Safe Now

June 4th, 2009 • Contributed by Dahlia Ward

This blog was originally posted on June 3rd on the ACLU’s Blog of Rights.  It was written by Sondra Goldschein and Allie Bohm.

On Sunday, May 31, Dr. George Tiller, a doctor in Wichita, Kansas, who for decades provided abortions for women even in the face of harassment and violence, was murdered at his place of worship. Sondra Goldschein and Allie Bohm, both of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), attended events in New York City and Washington, D.C., honoring Dr. Tiller’s life.

Sondra Goldschein writes:

When I heard about the murder of Dr. Tiller on Sunday evening, I went from shock to tears to fear to loss. I could feel those emotions but I couldn’t put into words what a tragedy his death is. I finally found the words from Dr. Tiller himself.I attended one of at least forty events across the country honoring Dr. Tiller’s life on Monday night. I was one of a large group of people in downtown Manhattan who heard a story about Dr. Tiller that cut to the core of who this remarkable man was. The story was told by New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Continue reading this article »

Comments Off • Posted in: Abortion

Science Returns to FDA Decision-Making!

April 22nd, 2009 • Contributed by Dahlia Ward

(Originally Posted on the ACLU’s Blog of Rights.)   By, Sondra Goldschein of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project

The Associated Press is reporting that Plan B (emergency contraception) will soon be available without a prescription for teens 17 and under. We expect the FDA to shortly announce its compliance with the court decision we reported on last month that slammed the FDA for its politically driven decision to impose an age restriction. We hope that this is the first step in making Plan B accessible and affordable for all women who need it.

Comments Off • Posted in: Emergency Contraception

ACLU Works to End Barbaric Practice of Shackling Pregnant Women Prisoners

April 16th, 2009 • Contributed by Dahlia Ward

(Originally posted on the ACLU’s Blog of Rights.) 

Written by Elizabeth Alexander of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. 

Shackling pregnant women during active labor and childbirth is, unfortunately, all too common in our nation’s prisons and jails. One such victim of this practice was Shawanna Nelson, who entered the Arkansas prison system when she was six months’ pregnant, with a short sentence for a non-violent crime. When she went into labor, the correctional officer accompanying her shackled her legs to opposite sides of the bed, and removed the shackles only long enough for the nurses to examine her. Ms. Nelson remained with both her legs shackled to the bed until she was taken to the delivery room, and she was re-shackled immediately after the birth of her son, who weighed almost ten pounds. The shackles caused Ms. Nelson to suffer cramps and intense pain, as she could not adjust her position during contractions. After childbirth, the use of shackles caused her to soil the sheets, because she could not be unshackled quickly enough to get to a bathroom. The correctional officer knew that Ms. Nelson was not a flight risk, and knew that the restraints caused pain and unsanitary conditions. According to expert obstetricians, shackling women during labor is inherently dangerous.

Continue reading this article »

Comments Off • Posted in: Action, Policy


April 8th, 2009 • Contributed by Dahlia Ward

What are you waiting for?

If you haven’t already, be sure to submit your comments supporting President Obama’s proposed rescission of the Heath Care Denial Rule by Thursday, April 9. The rule, finalized in the waning hours of the Bush administration, severely limits access to medical care and information by allowing heath care providers to deny care to anyone who needs services the provider objects to.

Continue reading this article »

Comments Off • Posted in: Policy