How pregnant women in Wisconsin are treated like second-class citizens

Tamara Loerstcher at 35 weeks pregnant (photo by Wendi Kent)
Tamara Loerstcher at 35 weeks pregnant (photo by Wendi Kent)

In Wisconsin, pregnant women are treated like second-class citizens. Republicans, who control Wisconsin’s state government, have enacted numerous laws that, among other things, require pregnant women who wish to have an abortion undergo an ultrasound regardless if they want or need an ultrasound or not and cut public funding to women’s health clinics.

However, arguably the worst piece of anti-abortion legislation that has been enacted in recent years in Wisconsin is the so-called “Cocaine Mom Law” (officially 1997 Wisconsin Act 292), enacted in 1998, that allows Wisconsin officials to arrest, detain, and imprison pregnant women for up to the duration of their pregnancies if said officials believe that the pregnant woman is abusing substances, such as alcohol and other drugs, to the point that the egg, embryo, fetus, or child upon birth will be “seriously affected”. In effect, Act 292 gives fetuses more legal rights than pregnant women.

One of the worst examples of Act 292 trampling over the constitutional rights of Wisconsin women is the case of Tamara Loerstcher, who was jailed, had her constitutional rights violated, and was subjected to horrible treatment after she went to an Eau Claire hospital in order to receive a pregnancy test and treatment for a thyroid condition and Loerstcher told the hospital that she had self-medicated with drugs prior to going to the hospital:

According to Loertscher and her attorneys, unbeknownst to her, as hospital workers were preparing a prescription to treat Loertscher’s thyroid condition, they were also initiating unborn child protection proceedings on behalf of Loertscher’s then 14-week-old fetus.

Loertscher and her attorneys claim that within days of Loertscher seeking care, hospital workers had already turned over Loerstcher’s hospital records to the state without Loerstcher’s knowledge or consent. They also claim that with those records in hand, state officials filed a petition accusing Loerstcher of abuse of an unborn child and held a hearing in which the state had appointed an attorney, known as a guardian ad litem, for the 14-week-old fetus, but granted Loerstcher no meaningful representation.

At the hearing, Loertscher and her attorneys allege she was ordered by the court into in-patient treatment even though she had not used drugs recently and voluntarily sought medical care. When Loerstcher refused to go to in-patient treatment, she was held in contempt of court and sent to jail, where she was held for 17 days without prenatal care and subject to abuse and harassment.

“This was my first pregnancy, so I didn’t know what to expect,” Loerstcher told reporters. “I was having lots of cramping and a lot of stress from everything and they [jail officials] wouldn’t allow me to see the doctor. They told me I would have to see a jail-appointed doctor who told me she wanted me to take a pregnancy test to confirm the pregnancy even though that’s why I was in jail, because I was pregnant. They knew that’s why I was there.”

Loerstcher claims she refused the pregnancy test, and in response, correction officials put her in solitary confinement and threatened to use a taser on her. “The jail doctor told me if I chose to miscarry, there wasn’t anything they could do about it anyways,” Loertscher said through tears.

[…]

In order to be released from jail, Loertscher had to sign a consent decree agreeing to additional drug tests, so she remains under state custody to some extent, her lawyer said.

Even worse, despite the fact that she was never tried or convicted of child abuse, Tamara Loerstcher will appear on Wisconsin’s child abuse registry for the remainder of her life unless this is overturned on appeal.

To summarize, Wisconsin officials jailed Tamara Loerstcher, granted her then-14 week old fetus legal counsel but refused to grant her any meaningful legal representation, took her medical records from the hospital without her knowledge or consent, ordered by a court into in-patient treatment despite not needing in-patient treatment and not having been tried or convicted of substance abuse, held in contempt of court and jailed for 17 days without prenatal care, subjected to abuse and harassment while jailed, forced her to take a pregnancy test despite her pregnancy having been already confirmed, and even threatened to use a taser on her while jailed. How Tamara Loerstcher was treated by the legal system in Wisconsin is some of the most barbaric treatment of someone I’ve ever seen in my entire life, in fact, Loerstcher’s story is so shocking, I’ve had nightmares about it. Her constitutional rights were repeatedly violated, she was not granted due process of law, and she was effectively convicted of child abuse without a trial. Sadly, Loerstcher isn’t the only one who has had her constitutional rights violated by Wisconsin’s Act 292.

I hope that Tamara Loerstcher gives birth to a healthy child in a few weeks (she is expecting to have a son) and that her name is cleared by the legal system.

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