Abortion & Reproductive Health Care for Incarcerated Women

orange-is-the-new-black-01Orange is the New Black returned for a second season to Netflix last Friday and continued a major plot line involving a pregnant inmate and the father of her baby, who happens to be a guard in the prison. What started as a secret romance escalated quickly due to the difficulties pregnant women face while behind bars. Legally speaking, a sexual relationship between an inmate and prison official can never be considered consensual and so the characters hatched a series of plans about how to deal with the pregnancy. Could she secretly terminate the pregnancy without anyone finding out? Could she continue the pregnancy and receive adequate health care? Could she hide the pregnancy and the true father? What happens when she goes into labor? What punishment(s) will the couple endure for their actions?

While the TV show mixes fact and fiction, it does honestly depict the reality of what happens when a woman becomes pregnant in prison or enters prison already pregnant. In addition to this ongoing pregnancy plot line, in the first season an inmate entered prison pregnant, went into labor and delivered in a hospital, and was separated from her baby shortly afterwards and returned to prison. Between six and 10 percent of women are already pregnant when admitted to a prison or jail and they can become pregnant during private visits with partners, home visits, while in work release programs, or as a result of sexual assault [ACOG]. Studies also show that approximately 14 percent of girls are pregnant when they arrive to juvenile detention.

In recognition of the prevalence of these realities, the Section published a policy brief on Abortion & Reproductive Health Care for Incarcerated Women. Although our brief focuses on Illinois policies and programs, incarcerated women in state and federal facilities across the United States face myriad barriers to receiving reproductive heath care, including abortion services. Despite having the constitutional right to have an abortion (as guaranteed under Roe v Wade), accessing the procedure while incarcerated presents many challenges, including facilities’ ad hoc responses to abortion requests and the logistics and challenges of organizing transportation and payment.

The brief also discusses the practice of shackling, prison nursery programs, and policy reforms needed to address the gendered needs of women prisoners.

Although Orange is the New Black errs on the dramatic side of storytelling, it does provide an overdue platform for discussing the basic human rights of incarcerated women who have the same rights as civilians to make decisions about their own bodies.

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