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When the law wants to rule in the womb

Published Sep. 27, 2005

Let's think about slavery for a minute. A slave is a person the government has decreed does not own his body, someone who the law says has no personal liberty, whose labor and even body parts, may be used for another's benefit.

With that definition in mind, now let's examine the case of Rebecca Corneau, a woman who has been imprisoned for the protection of her fetus.

Corneau is a member of the highly insular Attleboro, Mass.-based religious sect that eschews modern medicine and civil government. She has reportedly said the medical system is "under the direction of a pagan god."

Massachusetts prosecutors suspect Corneau, who is in the later stages of a pregnancy, is covering up the death of her last baby. They say Jeremiah suffocated soon after birth due to a failure to aspirate the child's lungs, a simple medical procedure. Corneau claims the child was stillborn. The cult is also under criminal investigation for the death of a 10-month-old child, but so far, neither of the children's bodies have been found.

Because of these suspicions of neglect, Attleboro Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Nasif has deemed Corneau an unfit parent. Her three children were taken by the state, as were the eight other children in the cult. But the judge went further. To protect her unborn baby, Nasif ordered Corneau to undergo a medical examination and confined her to a facility for pregnant state inmates until she gives birth.

With that act, Nasif rendered Corneau a slave. He commandeered her body, canceled her liberty, and made her existence subordinate to and a function of another's interests.

The district attorney who pushed the judge to imprison Corneau has been appearing on news shows defending the decision. When asked by CBS Early Show host Bryant Gumbel about the legality of forced medical care, Paul Walsh, Bristol County district attorney, responded: "The first thing we have to do in this case is save that baby and then decide where the legal rights get sifted out."

As a law enforcement officer, Walsh apparently can't be bothered with such fundamental legal principles as a pregnant woman's bodily integrity, freedom of religion and her right to decide that she doesn't want a strange doctor's hands thrust inside of her. He's got an unborn baby to protect, after all, and despite the fact that cult members seemed to have done fine birthing all but one of the other children in the group, Walsh is going to make sure Corneau's next baby isn't going to be subject to such a neglectful process as natural childbirth.

This isn't the first time state authorities have dragged a pregnant woman into court in the name of protecting fetal health. Women have traditionally been proverbial slaves to their wombs, but some judges and prosecutors want them to be literal ones as well.

In 1987 in the District of Columbia, Angela Carder, a young woman with advanced cancer was forced by a court to undergo a caesarean section even though doctors believed she might not survive the operation. Within a few hours of the surgery, the baby died. Two days hence, Carder died.

Later, the full D.C. Court of Appeals overturned the case, ruling that the caesarean order violated Carder's constitutional rights. But of course Carder was already dead. Perhaps this is what Walsh meant when he talked about taking immediate action against Corneau before "the legal rights get sifted out."

For people like Walsh, a pregnant woman's will should be respected only as long as she is acting solely in the best interests of her womb. When she chooses to deviate, they want the state to step in and remind her of non-personhood, that she is merely a vessel for her developing fetus.

Nothing could better illustrate this notion than the 1983 case of Taft vs. Taft where, before the state Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts overruled the order, a lower court had demanded that a woman's cervix be sewn up against her will in order to prevent a miscarriage.

This sense of entitlement some state authorities apparently have over a pregnant woman's body is undoubtedly wrapped up in abortion politics. Whether you believe a woman's body is her own or a venue for state regulation often has to do with your conception of fetal life.

But Corneau isn't intending to abort. She wants to have the baby. So let's take her situation from a pro-life perspective: Corneau isn't "murdering" her child, she is simply refusing to undergo a medical procedure on herself that might better her child's health. Well, even most pro-lifers would agree that a woman can't be forced to give an up an organ, bone marrow or even blood to their child after it's born, even if to do so would save its life. Why then may a pregnant Corneau be forced to have unwanted medical attendance for the child's potential health benefit?

The Corneau case isn't about whether her religious beliefs are sensible, or whether her choice to reject modern medicine is wise. It's about whether Rebecca Corneau is a person with inalienable rights or whether the law has marginalized her to the status of an incubator _ and all other pregnant women along with her.