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Woman Challenges Wisconsin's 'Cocaine Mom' Law

Wisconsin experienced heated debates in the late 1990s when state leaders considered a fetal protection bill.

Some called it the Cocaine Mom bill and it became law. It allows officials to force pregnant women into treatment, if they’re abusing drugs or alcohol.

Now, more than 15 years later, a national group plans to sue the state for enforcing the law. The catalyst is a case in Medford.

Tamara Loertscher says she was 14 weeks pregnant when she went to the Eau Claire Mayo Clinic last summer, to seek treatment for depression and a thyroid condition. Tests revealed she had used marijuana and methamphetamine during her pregnancy.

When she refused treatment, law enforcement arrested and jailed her. Loertscher calls conditions in the Taylor County Jail terrible.

“They immediately started harassing me. They all thought I was this horrible person. I got asked if I even cared about my baby. This was my first pregnancy and I didn’t know what to expect and I was having lots of cramping and a lot of stress. They wouldn’t allow me to see the doctor, I had to see a jail-appointed doctor,” Loertscher says.

Loertscher says she refused to take a pregnancy test while incarcerated, and her punishment was two days in solitary confinement. Sara Ainsworth calls the case disturbing.

“For 17 days she was in jail without pre-natal care and she was treated very cruelly. I think Ms. Loertscher’s case exemplifies how profoundly the state of Wisconsin has lost sight of what it means to ensure a healthy pregnancy,” Ainsworth says.

Ainsworth represents the group National Advocates for Pregnant Women. It plans to file a lawsuit against the state, insisting it violated Loertscher’s civil rights. The suit will name the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, because it spells-out how to enforce the law.

The department would not comment on the case, neither would supporters of the bill. But one lawmaker who helped advance the Fetal Protection Act in 1998, was former Republican state Sen. Joanne Huelsman.

“We’re talking about an extreme cost both to the child and to society if that child is born addicted to cocaine or born with fetal alcohol syndrome. I think the consequences to that child far outweigh the right of a woman to continue to drink or use illegal drugs,” Huelsman says.

Tamara Loertcher’s attorneys say they could file their lawsuit as soon as Monday.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.