Do Pregnant Women Lose Legal Rights?

July 28, 1989

Report Outline
Special Focus

Introduction

Should mothers be held criminally responsible for their “cocaine babies”? Should reluctant women be forced to undergo Caesarean sections? In short, do women who do not have abortions lose certain rights over their own bodies that they otherwise would have? If so, how much should their freedom be restricted? And when—throughout their pregnancies, or only at the end, when the fetus can survive outside the womb? The answers are not simple, the decisions have been controversial, and there are serious dangers involved for both sides in the reproductive-rights controversy.

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Overview

Judges have been grappling with wrenching legal issues involving children since the days of Solomon, but the past 15 years have brought an increasing number and variety of difficult questions involving parents and children, women and fetuses into American courtrooms. Now law, politics and science are combining to add to the pressure for greater judicial intervention in women's pregnancies, and it is happening at a time when society is deeply divided or uncertain about fundamental questions involving birth, motherhood and family.

The U.S. Supreme Court invited even more pressure with its July 3 ruling that gave states greater leeway to regulate abortion. The decision, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, could lead to new laws to control when, where and how women can undergo an abortion. It also could pave the way for greater regulation of the pregnancies of women who do not have abortions.

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