Natasha Lisman is a Boston attorney with significant victories in both civil rights and civil liberties cases. A former president of the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, she is now on its board.

Lisman is drawn -- or rather draws herself -- to particularly thorny legal issues: fetal abuse, for instance. In the Boston Bar Journal, Lisman has committed what she calls "heresy from the feminist 'civil liberties' position that pregnant women have the unfettered right to harm their children-to-be."

There has indeed been an abundance of articles by feminists, including ACLU attorneys, arguing that it is senseless and unfair to punish victims of drug abuse -- that is, pregnant women. They need treatment, which often does not exist for pregnant addicts. The other victims (fetuses who will be born damaged by their mothers' use of crack or other harmful substances) are seldom mentioned in these articles.

For example, in a New York Times op-ed piece, Dorothy Roberts -- a professor of criminal law and civil liberties at Rutgers -- has emphasized that about 70 percent of the defendants prosecuted for drug use during pregnancy are poor and black. That means -- although she does not mention it -- that the fetuses these women are carrying may be at considerable risk of being born impaired.

Natasha Lisman's proposal applies only to women who have chosen to carry to term. "In such a case," she writes, "the state may legitimately intervene to control {the woman's} behavior during pregnancy by means narrowly designed to prevent or minimize harm to thechild caused by prenatal conduct -- just as it may legitimately intervene to prevent or minimize harm caused by postnatal conduct."

It is hardly novel, she points out, to protect the interests of children-to-be from prenatally caused harm. After all, "a guardian ad litem may be appointed to represent the legal rights and economic interests of an unborn child." Surely the state has an even more compelling interest in protecting the fetus-who-will-be-a-child from physical harm.

Lisman notes that her proposal in no way impedes a woman's right to choose abortion. Also, her plan would not focus only on drug abuse. "Severe battery of a pregnant woman can also lead to postnatal injury to the child and warrant state intervention against the perpetrator.

"Similarly, maternal abuse during pregnancy of legal substances such as alcohol also has serious postnatal effects on children and should trigger protective intervention." As a civil libertarian, she calls for solid due process safeguards "against excessive or unwarranted state intervention."

Lisman cites Minnesota as a state that hasextended child abuse prevention laws to encompass alleged harmful conduct during pregnancy. Any pregnant woman reported to be "chemically dependent" must be given drug treatment and prenatal care. "State agencies are further mandated to seek involuntary civil commitment of a 'chemically dependent' pregnant woman who refuses or fails to undergo recommended treatment." Then the treatment would be compulsory, and those women have a right to appointed counsel to contest the civil commitment.

The Minnesota approach, as described by Lisman, poses a question to those who say the real problem in this kind of fetal abuse is lack of treatment facilities for addicted pregnant women. In states where facilities do exist, what of the women who refuse treatment? Is there nothing that should be done? Is the future of the fetus no one's responsibility?

And if treatment facilities are not available, is civil commitment -- so that the mother will remain drug-free until the birth of the child -- out of the question? It certainly is a severe invasion of the mother's civil liberties, but what of the child-to-be? However, once there is civil commitment, the state must then provide treatment.

"We have no difficulty," says Lisman, "accepting such restrictions with respect to conduct after birth, permitting the law to strike a balance between parental freedom and children's welfare when they are in conflict. Why should it be different if a pregnant woman's treatment of her body creates irreparable harm to the health of the child she has chosen to bear?

"If the biology of pregnancy has been used to give women -- to the exclusion of any claims of biological fathers -- a special right to decide whether or not to undergo abortion, surely that same biology imposes special obligations as well."

There are judges and legislators around the country who, on their own, are moving toward the Lisman approach to fetal abuse. They will be fought by the ACLU -- except for its member in Boston, Natasha Lisman, who thinks for herself.