In late July of this year, Tamara Loerstcher went to a Eau Claire, Wisconsin hospital seeking medical treatment for her untreated thyroid condition. Loerstcher had suspicions that she was pregnant – she was also using this hospital trip to get confirmation about her pregnancy. She was uninsured; she did not have a primary care physician. Loerstcher, who had used drugs in the recent past, disclosed her drug history to hospital workers. When the hospital workers found out that Loerstcher was 14 weeks pregnant, they had her placed in jail for endangering her fetus. You can read more details about her story here.
Wisconsin Act 292 states that it protects “unborn children who are at substantial risk of serious physical injury due to the habitual lack of self-control of their expectant mothers in the use of alcohol beverages, controlled substances or controlled substance analogs.” Prior to the passage of the bill in 1997, the law protected children who were allegedly at risk of physical injury at the hands of their parents. This bill extended the child abuse and reporting law to fetuses. Essentially, the law, similar to the notorious “personhood” bills that keep being defeated at the ballot box, gives authorities the power to determine that a woman “habitually lacks self-control” and subsequently detain and punish her.
While Loerstcher was waiting for treatment for her thyroid condition, the hospital workers tending to her were initiating protection proceedings on behalf of Loertscher’s 14-week old fetus. At her hearing, Loerstcher was ordered to go into in-patient treatment. Loerstcher hadn’t used drugs recently, so she made the decision to refuse the order. As a result, she was held in contempt of court and sent to jail. She was held in jail for 17 days without prenatal care. A week after being released from jail, Loerstcher received a notice in the mail stating that her name was added to Wisconsin's child abuse registry. Unless she wins an appeal, her name will remain on the registry for life. Having her name on the state child abuse registry means that Loertscher, who is a certified nurse’s aid, might have difficulties working in her field.
Attorneys working with Tamara Loerstcher from the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, the Carr Center for Reproductive Justice at New York University School of Law, and the Perkins Coie Law firm have put together a soon-to-be-filed federal civil rights lawsuit against the state of Wisconsin.