A jailed expectant mom - and a case of tangled rights

A move to require medical oversight of a pregnant woman raises issues of child safety and religious rights.

The saga of Rebecca Corneau began with the diaries of an Attleboro, Mass., religious sect.

The pages recount the deaths of two babies born into the sect, one of them Ms. Corneau's, who authorities believe could have been saved if members had allowed them to have medical care.

Now Corneau is expecting a new baby, but the words in those diaries - read by the local district attorney - have resulted in an unprecedented turn of events. The Bristol County district attorney is insisting that Corneau see a doctor, she's refused (calling medicine a "false god"), and today she sits in jail.

Corneau is not charged with a crime, but has been declared an "unfit mother" by a juvenile court. Her baby will be taken from her at birth, which most likely will occur inside the jail.

The unusual case has sparked controversy on a wide range of issues, from fetal rights to religious freedom to the constitutionality of locking up someone on a hunch that she might commit a crime.

"This case raises one of the most difficult questions that the law has to face. Namely, when should government intrude on otherwise private family matters?" says Roger Pilon of the Center for Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute.

The case marks the first time a Massachusetts court has used child-protection laws to take custody of a pregnant woman.

Civil libertarians and women's rights activists worry that the action will have profound ramifications beyond this case. The district attorney, Paul Walsh, says he is simply trying to save a baby.

"Whether it is the right move will be determined to a substantial degree after the fact," Mr. Pilon says. "Different people will reach different conclusions."

The nameless religious sect, which evolved from a Bible study group, rejects what it calls the "seven systems" of mainstream society: banking, education, entertainment, government, medicine, religion, and science.

In keeping with her beliefs, Corneau has refused the help of a lawyer. But that does not mean she is alone in court.

The American Civil Liberties Union has submitted a friend-of-the-court brief, and a law professor specializing in women's reproductive issues has filed an appeal with the state's highest court.

Making decisions about treatment

"This case has important consequences for all competent adults who have the right to make their own decisions about medical treatment," says Sarah Wunsch, a lawyer at the Massachusetts ACLU. "Women don't lose that right when they get pregnant."

The judge in the case appointed a lawyer to represent Corneau's unborn child. But Ms. Wunsch says the judge does not have that authority because a fetus is not a separate legal entity from its mother.

Mr. Walsh counters that Massachusetts courts have previously heard cases in which a fetus has been viewed as separate from the mother, such as in the case of a drunken driver who killed a pregnant woman and was charged with two counts of motor-vehicle homicide.

Beyond the rights of the unborn child, other issues in this complicated case have stumped even the best legal minds. "It's almost like some kind of law-school hypothetical question," says Steven Smith, an expert in law and religion at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

Professor Smith says the current legal mood favors protecting potential life. That is, a parent's religious objections to medical treatment can be overridden if a child's life is at stake.

"It does seem to me that [the state] has a pretty strong case to override the parents' objections," he says of the Corneau case. "But putting the parent in jail does present a more complicated question."

Corneau, who is believed to be about 8-1/2 months pregnant, is not the only sect member in jail. Currently, eight others are behind bars for refusing to cooperate with an investigation into the deaths of two babies born into the sect. Authorities suspect Corneau's child died soon after birth because its lungs weren't properly aspirated. A second baby is believed to have starved to death after it stopped nursing.

So far, the infants' bodies have not been found, and charges haven't been filed against any sect member. All 13 children in the sect have been placed in state care; three of them are Corneau's.

A slippery slope?

Some experts worry that if the decision to jail Corneau until she consents to a medical exam is allowed to stand, other prosecutors will feel free to intervene if a pregnant woman is found taking illegal drugs, using tobacco or alcohol, or even driving without a seatbelt.

"Those who think they are protecting the health and welfare of children are actually causing harm to children down the road," Wunsch says. Fear of such punitive approaches may deter troubled women from seeking prenatal care, she worries.

But this case is so unique that it's difficult to know if it will have a broad impact.

It has "potentially troubling implications," says Elliot Mincberg of People for the American Way in Washington. "But it is such an extreme situation, it's hard to predict if it will set any kind of precedent."

Christian Science is sometimes mentioned when issues of religious freedom arise. Many of its adherents choose to rely on prayer for healing, and a few cases relating to the care of children have reached the courts.

Walsh, though, says he is not out to get certain religions, nor is he on a crusade for the rights of the unborn.

"This [Attleboro sect] isn't an organized religion like Christian Science or the Amish, with an institutional set of beliefs. They are making it up as they go along," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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