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Florida Panhandle Nurse Practitioner Coalition

Woman's Rights Denied While in Hospital

Posted almost 9 years ago by Stanley F Whittaker

A Times Editorial

Florida trampled woman's rights

In Print: Friday, February 5, 2010

Samantha Burton wanted to make her own decisions about her obstetrical care, but the state of Florida wouldn't let her. Claiming it was protecting her fetus, the state took away her rights as a patient and a citizen and made her a virtual prisoner in a Tallahassee hospital. A state appeals court now considering the case must slam the door on such tactics before other pregnant women are victimized.

Burton, a 29-year-old working mother with two young children, was 25 weeks pregnant when she was hospitalized in March 2009 at Tallahassee Memorial. Her obstetrician, Dr. Jana Bures-Forsthoefel, told Burton that because of ruptured membranes and premature contractions, she would have to stay in bed in the hospital for the rest of her pregnancy — potentially 15 more weeks for a full-term pregnancy.

Burton wanted to leave and get a second opinion, but the hospital blocked her departure and set up a hasty court hearing in her hospital room. Burton was sworn in and handed a telephone, with Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper on the other end of the line. She had no lawyer and no legal experience, but Burton was expected to argue her case against her obstetrician and the hospital's attorney.

Her request to go to another hospital was denied. The judge ordered Burton to remain in Tallahassee Memorial and submit to any medical treatment that doctors decided was necessary to preserve the life and health of her fetus. And because the fetus was in the breech position, the judge also ordered Burton to submit to a caesarean section whenever her doctors said it was time.

Burton, who had broken no law, was essentially imprisoned at Tallahassee Memorial and denied control over her medical care. Three days later, doctors performed an emergency cesarean section, but Burton's fetus was dead. Now she and her pro bono attorney, David Abrams of Tallahassee, are appealing the original court order to the 1st District Court of Appeal.

The Florida Constitution, with an even stronger guarantee of privacy than the U.S. Constitution, protects the right of adults to make their own medical decisions and maintain autonomy over their bodies. But the Leon County court denied Burton those rights, deciding that the welfare of her fetus was the controlling factor. It used the state's authority to act as parent when parents won't get medical care for a child — an irrelevant and improper comparison, since in this case there was no child and the patient was an adult.

The Burton case was an appalling, unconstitutional exercise of state power against an innocent woman. It should not be allowed to stand.