Pregnant woman's case blazes new legal trail

Sunday, September 10th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BOSTON – Locked in a Massachusetts state facility, Rebecca Corneau is an unlikely feminist heroine.

She is a member of an intensely fundamentalist Christian sect that denounces modern society and relies on prayer over law, medicine or any other mortal contrivance. She is also close to nine months pregnant.

Ms. Corneau, 32, has become a reluctant cause célèbre since authorities placed her in protective custody – forced hospitalization, in effect – because they suspect that her infant son and another baby born into the sect died when the religious group did not seek medical help.

No bodies have been found, but prosecutors contend that both children died and that the deaths were preventable. Now, authorities say they are keeping the mother in custody to ensure the safety of her unborn child. The case that has raised concerns about religious freedom, a woman's right to privacy over her own body and whether a pregnant woman can be forced to have prenatal care.

A juvenile court judge upheld his decision Thursday to keep Ms. Corneau confined until her baby is born, saying he could hear the unborn child's voice.

"And it said, 'I want to live. I do not want to die. I do not want to die like my brother Jeremiah did,'" District Judge Kenneth Nasif said.

The case in Attleboro appears to be without precedent, legal analysts say. And although Ms. Corneau eschews legal counsel, her situation has attracted a bandwagon of supporters who criticize the confinement as a violation of her civil rights.

Others side with Judge Nasif and prosecutor Paul Walsh, who contend the moral urgency of protecting this fetus outweighs the "technical, legal, right-or-wrong" issue of Ms. Corneau's right.

She has refused a medical exam. In court, Ms. Corneau stands alone and answers in polite monosyllables. The judge has appointed an attorney to represent "Unborn Child Corneau," as the fetus is described.

Ms. Corneau is a member of a 13-member band of believers that takes its doctrine from the Old Testament and the Home in Zion Ministries in Florida. The group views science and medicine as blasphemy and denies the existence of the United States. The sect denounces education, government, banking and entertainment. The group supports itself through a masonry business.

The nameless sect is the subject of a grand jury probe into the 1999 deaths of Jeremiah Corneau, who is alleged to have died during or shortly after birth, and 10-month old Samuel Robidoux – son of the group's leader – who allegedly starved after he stopped nursing.

Authorities allege that the group buried two small coffins in a Maine state park last summer. Officials have searched unsuccessfully for the bodies in three disparate locations. Prosecutors are seeking charges against sect members ranging from improper disposal of a body to murder.

Andi Mullin, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization for Women, acknowledged that in trying to prevent an infant death, state authorities probably acted out of noble intentions.

"But the implications of this action are alarming," she said. "Are we going to start incarcerating pregnant women for smoking? Skiing? Skateboarding? Do we lock them up at 81/2 months? Three months? One month?"

Boston reproductive-rights lawyer Wendy Murphy was so outraged by the decision that she filed a request Wednesday for review with the Supreme Judicial Court, the state's highest court.

Claiming that women's rights are "chilled and threatened" by Judge Nasif's ruling, Ms. Murphy entered her request on behalf of a woman, identified only as Barbara F., who is six months pregnant. Ms. Murphy's petition said the woman is concerned that she, too, could be forced into custody.

Ms. Murphy has no relationship with Ms. Corneau.

"She's not my client, she doesn't want a lawyer and she has a perfect right not to have one," Ms. Murphy said. "My interest was that I thought the ruling was so patently unconstitutional, coupled with the public comments from the district attorney, who said, essentially, 'The constitutional issues were interesting, but let's talk about those after we have a healthy baby.' That's like shoot now, ask questions later."

The concerns about the Corneau case have legal precedent. About 200 women in 30 states have been prosecuted on various legal theories of "fetal abuse." A woman in Georgia was charged last year with capital murder for the death, moments after birth, of one of a pair of premature twins; the mother, who tested positive for cocaine and methamphetamine, had received no prenatal care. Her lawyers are seeking dismissal of the charges.

Jetta Bernier, executive director for Massachusetts Citizens for the Children, lauded the action in Ms. Corneau's case.

Limiting Ms. Corneau's rights "for a period of a few weeks seems far less disturbing than denying her child's basic right to be born in a safe and protective setting," she said.

Many call the language of rights in conflict – "maternal rights" vs. "fetal rights" – a misleading way to frame the question.

It is a misperceived conflict and a "false dichotomy," said Rachel Roth, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of Making Women Pay: The Hidden Costs of Fetal Rights. The book argues that a result of emphasizing the ways in which women fail their fetuses has been to take society off the hook for providing better medical care, drug treatment and safer workplaces and to "privatize responsibility for the next generation."

Any emphasis on the fetus as a focus of public policy makes supporters of abortion rights nervous. Yet the question of harmful behavior during pregnancy is logically separate from the abortion debate, said John Robertson, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Texas at Austin.

Although it is clear from the Supreme Court's precedents that "fetuses don't have rights as such to be born," Dr. Robertson said, that is hardly the end of the discussion.

The "real party in interest," he said, is neither the woman nor the fetus, but "the child who will be born" and who will be affected, after birth, by the prenatal behavior. "A pregnant woman, if she chooses not to end the pregnancy, takes on a moral and perhaps a legal obligation to refrain from clearly harmful prenatal conduct," he said.

The New York Times News Service contributed to this report.