Saturday, March 7, 2009

Intl Women's Day 2009: Repro Rights for Incarcerated Women

"Do crime, do time," I remember him saying. He was a Cobb County police officer who came to our school to talk to our 1st grade class on career day. Before breaking down a day in the life of a law enforcer, we received that spiel given to youngsters all over the nation: obey the law, stay out of trouble, and no harm will come to you. We were given the run-down of what happens in jail, complete with images of anonymous inmates sitting lethargically in their cells. I remember the talk being specifically targeted towards the boys, and all the images showed not only male law enforcement, but male inmates as well. I honestly wasn't aware that women even go to prison until a couple of years later when I caught a story on the local news about a female correctional facility where women reported being raped.

Even at that young age, I remember wondering what happened to a woman who became pregnant while incarcerated (the notion that a woman would arrive to her sentence pregnant did not dawn on me for some time). What would happen to the woman? The baby? What sort of healthcare do incarcerated women even get?

These questions still circle my brain relatively unanswered, not for lack of researching, but because the amount of reproductive healthcare an incarcerated woman can access varies so much by state. What's more, a woman who does not realize her rights while incarcerated might not be able to take advantage of her full range of options. New York State, for example, entitles women to a full range of reproductive options while incarcerated, but county systems themselves often deny these options with little to no enforcement by the state government.

The Women's Prison Association suggests between 5000-10000 women enter prison pregnant each year. Many others become pregnant while incarcerated: for female inmates, rape and sexual assault is often a way of life. Female inmates do in fact become pregnant from rape by prison guards, and are often forced to carry to term due to a lack of comprehensive reproductive health services. These women are further punished not for "doing crime," but for a crime done unto them while they're simply "doing time."

Groups like the ACLU have made huge strides in ensuring abortion rights for incarcerated women in states like New York and Missouri (a U.S. Supreme Court case originating in Missouri upheld inmate abortion rights just last October). But the right to an abortion hardly encompasses the full range of options needed to ensure every woman, even those who have broken the law, access to comprehensive reproductive healthcare. A New York Times article from 2006 reported that twenty-three states as well as the federal Bureau of Prisons allow an incarcerated woman to be shackled during labor.

While prisoner advocacy groups certainly work diligently to expand reproductive rights for U.S. citizens, incarcerated or not, it is immigrant women who face the most challenges to their 8th amendment right to medical care and their 14th amendment right to an elective abortion. Not being U.S. citizens, opponents argue, these amendments simply do not apply, even though the women are in U.S. custody. I recently read a report from the Texas Observer about immigrant women detained by ICE while crossing the border. The article tells the story of Maria, a woman from Honduras who made the treacherous journey to the U.S. so she could send money to her eight year old daughter back home. According to a spokesperson from the ICE, nearly 10% of immigrants arrive at the border pregnant, often from sexual assault during their journey to the border. Unable to obtain an abortion at the detention facility, Maria was deported back to Honduras and had to endure an illegal abortion. Her family disowned her for it.

On this International Woman's Day, I am thankful of how far we have come but soberly aware of how far we still have to go. In a world where borders and chain-link fences are barriers to basic human rights, we cannot afford to celebrate without keeping perspective on our mission. IWD is a day to remember those who have made advances not just for American women, not just for free women, but for all women regardless of status.

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