This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series. Visit this page for more information.
By Deborah Fisch, JD
The Texas case awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court heralds a new understanding of abortion rights in the line of cases from Roe (1973) through Casey (1992). However, another reproductive rights case about having children is also worth revisiting.
The subject of In re A.C. (1990) is Angela Carder, a cancer patient in her last days of life, who refused a c-section at 26 weeks’ gestation. A physician unrelated to her case obtained a court order that authorized the hospital to proceed. Both Carder and the baby died within two days after surgery. An appeals court overturned the order, thereby setting a precedent for the right of a pregnant patient1 to refuse care. Although this precedent was limited to the District of Columbia, it was felt to be sufficiently influential to guide other state court decisions. In the intervening years, however, A.C. has often failed to provide the envisioned protection.
1 On language: this article refers to “pregnant patients” or “pregnant people,” with the goal of including those who give birth who do not identify as women.
In 1999, Laura Pemberton sued a Florida hospital that procured a court order to forcibly transport her to the hospital for a c-section. The court’s analysis in finding against her was telling: in response to Pemberton’s claim that her constitutional rights had been violated to bodily integrity, refusal of treatment, and family privacy, the court conducted a cursory balancing test between Pemberton’s right to bodily autonomy and the safety of the fetus – in opposition to A.C., which explicitly rejected such a test. The opinion cited A.C. only once, to distinguish Pemberton’s situation from Carder’s: it claimed that because surgery did not risk Pemberton’s death, the hospital was justified in making the decision for her based on the relative risks to parent and fetus.
In addition to disregarding A.C., this finding turns the medico-legal doctrine of informed consent on its head. Under it, providers bear a duty to inform the patient of the risks and benefits of proposed treatments, while patients possess the right to consent or refuse, based on their risk perception as combined with their values and circumstances. If relative medical risk were the sole criterion for decision-making, as the Pemberton Court seems to suggest, a patient’s consent would be irrelevant.
The Pemberton Court justified its decision with Roe, which grants the state an interest in the fetus late in pregnancy – and thus, an ability to intervene. Roe, of course, addressed abortion rights, whereas Pemberton was a pregnant patient who wished to bear her child. This misapplied doctrine continues to follows the offspring of A.C.
Court-ordered c-sections are now rare, perhaps thanks to A.C. More common are medical malpractice cases that challenge unconsented-to c-sections performed without court authority. Most such cases are still in process through the courts.
The New York case filed by Rinat Dray in April 2014 immediately made headlines. An on-call physician forcibly performed a c-section, noting (unwisely!) in Dray’s chart, “The woman has decisional capacity. I have decided to override her refusal to have a c-section.”
The A.C. Court reaffirmed that failure to provide informed consent is considered malpractice. However, patients like Dray are hard-pressed to find a willing attorney. The contingency fee model of financing requires the prospect of a significant damage award to offset the $50,000 average cost of mounting a case. Attorneys, judges, and juries alike generally do not acknowledge a recompensable injury when both parent and baby emerge from birth alive and nominally healthy. Sadly, Dray may have succeeded in bringing her case to court in part because she suffered an additional physical injury during surgery.
A refinement on c-sections performed without consent are those in which consent was obtained by coercion. New Jersey attorney Lindsay Scarborough Switzer was already in the pushing phase of her son’s birth when the on-call physician arrived and abruptly demanded a c-section. After the physician warned of brain-damage to the baby, threatened calls to a magistrate to compel the surgery, withheld requested pain medication, and alluded to a possible removal of Switzer’s older child by child welfare services, Switzer finally signed the consent form that was put in front of her.
Switzer is a healthy, educated, determined attorney, who was attended in labor by her husband, a nurse-midwife, and a doula. It is difficult to imagine a patient better situated to hold out against coercion. That she could not indicates that patients in labor are particularly vulnerable to this sort of intimidation, as perhaps may be better understood by considering coercion in sexual assault. Switzer made the full records of her case available to the public before it was settled in late 2015.
Michigan Law on Unconsented-To C-Section
Although Michigan statute does not grant child welfare authorities jurisdiction over children not yet born, the state’s interpretation of relevant case law suggests that when a fetus is believed to be in danger, that barrier may be demolished. A 1987 bioethics article explored several Michigan cases, one of which had been explored in depth in 1984. The possibility of court-ordered c-sections in Michigan is real; the existence of coercive c-sections is already a reality.
In spite of the legal authority of A.C., the right of competent parents to refuse surgery is often compromised, and their ability to seek redress is limited. Those who reach court are members of relatively privileged classes; what does this mean for everyone else?
By asking these questions, this article does not suggest we vilify physicians or deify patients; we are all influenced by the systems in which we live and work – and give birth. Extensive practice guidelines and other resources are in place to support physicians with concerns about possible conflict between patient autonomy rights and physician duty to patients. Institutions ranging from hospitals to the courts must reinforce the policy that the best decision-maker for a potential child is its parent, particularly the one in whose body it resides.
Deborah Fisch is a Michigan attorney with a solo practice that offers defense of health care providers against state disciplinary actions. She is also employed at AwakenMichigan: Reproductive and Sexual Justice Project. Her interest in childbirth and maternity care is expressed through her legislative work on midwife licensure through Friends of Michigan Midwives, her legal advocacy and organizational efforts through Birth Rights Bar Association, and her intermittent pronouncements at Mama’s Got a Plan. She was a contributing author to the amicus curiae brief submitted by Human Rights in Childbirth for the Rinat Dray case.
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