Court-ordered obstetrical interventions

N Engl J Med. 1987 May 7;316(19):1192-6. doi: 10.1056/NEJM198705073161905.


In a national survey, we investigated the scope and circumstances of court-ordered obstetrical procedures in cases in which the women had refused therapy deemed necessary for the fetus. We also solicited the opinions of leading obstetricians regarding such cases. Court orders have been obtained for cesarean sections in 11 states, for hospital detentions in 2 states, and for intrauterine transfusions in 1 state. Among 21 cases in which court orders were sought, the orders were obtained in 86 percent; in 88 percent of those cases, the orders were received within six hours. Eighty-one percent of the women involved were black, Asian, or Hispanic, 44 percent were unmarried, and 24 percent did not speak English as their primary language. All the women were treated in a teaching-hospital clinic or were receiving public assistance. No important maternal morbidity or mortality was reported. Forty-six percent of the heads of fellowship programs in maternal-fetal medicine thought that women who refused medical advice and thereby endangered the life of the fetus should be detained. Forty-seven percent supported court orders for procedures such as intrauterine transfusions. We conclude from these data that court-ordered obstetrical procedures represent an important and growing problem that evokes sharply divided responses from faculty members in obstetrics. Such procedures are based on dubious legal grounds, and they may have far-reaching implications for obstetrical practice and maternal and infant health.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Blood Transfusion, Intrauterine
  • Cesarean Section
  • Female
  • Hospitalization
  • Humans
  • Legislation, Medical*
  • Obstetrics*
  • Patient Advocacy / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Patient Compliance*
  • Pregnancy
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United States
  • Women's Rights / legislation & jurisprudence