New Paper Series Explores Reproductive Justice Issues, Including What Happens to Pregnant Women in Prison

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Analysis Law and Policy

New Paper Series Explores Reproductive Justice Issues, Including What Happens to Pregnant Women in Prison

Rachel Roth

The treatment of pregnant women in prison exposes problems with mass imprisonment in the United States.

The Center for Women Policy Studies has published a series of papers called Reproductive Laws for the 21st Century. The series addresses issues ranging from the exclusion of abortion from health care reform in the United States to the rights of lesbian families in Argentina.

My contribution is called “She Doesn’t Deserve to be Treated Like This”: Prisons as Sites of Reproductive Injustice. The quotation in the title comes from a Pennsylvania grandmother whose 22 year-old granddaughter was left to give birth all alone, locked in a prison cell. No matter how she tried to convince the prison staff that she needed to go to a hospital, they wouldn’t listen.

This is just one of many chilling stories about the inhumane treatment of pregnant women behind prison walls. The United States imprisons more people than any other country, and this pattern is especially pronounced when it comes to women: fully one-third of all the women and girls in prison worldwide are right here in the U.S.

The prison system, and the “war on drugs” and sentencing policies that have fed its expansion over the past few decades, are fitting subjects for a reproductive justice analysis for many reasons: most imprisoned women are in their reproductive years, mothers of young children, or both; imprisoned women are overwhelmingly poor and disproportionately from urban communities of color; and spending on prison outstrips spending on public education in many states, upending reproductive justice priorities.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Although some elected officials have begun to recognize the untenable costs of mass imprisonment, we still have a long way to go. Exposing the violations of women’s reproductive rights and health brings an important problem to light and also provides a specific entry point into the discussion about the social and fiscal costs of our current policy.