In the United States, about 5% of women are pregnant at their time of imprisonment, with most of the pregnancies being unintentional. As such, women are faced with the challenging decision of whether or not to terminate their pregnancy whilst incarcerated. The landmark 1973 Roe vs Wade case granted access to safe abortion in the US and the 14th amendment extends that right to those who are incarcerated. Although there are no legitimate grounds on which to impede a women’s access to abortion in prisons and jails, societal challenges, exacerbated by a lack of national regulation, hinder access to safe abortions for women behind bars.
According to a national study published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health in 2009, only 68% of incarcerated pregnant women stated that women in their facilities who elected to have an abortion were allowed to do so. This highlights the notion that allowance does not equate to ability, and therefore the percentage of incarcerated women who are actually able to have an abortion is much lower than those who wish to have one. This is due to the fact that incarcerated women face many obstacles including lack of support, spread of misinformation, and both financial and logistical challenges when navigating their access to reproductive healthcare.
The first barrier challenging women’s right to abortion is the lack of support and unbiased information from correctional officers and staff. Officers are not required to give women accurate information on abortion or other reproductive health services. In fact, they are not even required to share any information at all. Furthermore, in two thirds of facilities in the United States, women are required to independently find a doctor or clinic that can facilitate the procedure. This is virtually impossible as most incarcerated women have little connection with the outside world and thus limited ability to find abortion clinics. Additionally, many officers take advantage of the information vacuum inside of prisons to impose their own beliefs about abortion on the inmates. As such, legality is not the only barrier to abortion, a women facing this decision also requires access to information about how to obtain a safe procedure. Many women in prison are denied this access due to the power of the correctional staff in deciding what information to relay to the inmates.
In the case where women are provided with accurate information on how to access abortions, they still face the financial burden of the procedure. The fact that an abortion can cost anywhere around $500 places a considerable strain on already vulnerable women. What solidifies the economic challenges of abortion is that four out of five state prison systems require a women to pay for her own abortion. The financial burden is arguably the largest barrier in obtaining a safe abortion as many incarcerated women do not have the means to pay. On top of the cost of the procedure itself, at least 11 states also require the woman to pay for transportation costs and other wages pertaining to the required accompanying officers. Also, most prisons are in rural or remote areas meaning they can be very far from abortion clinics. When considering these multiple factors it becomes evident that the cost of accessing a safe abortion can be quite high and thus inaccessible to many women in prison.
Incarcerated women seeking abortions are also faced with numerous logistical barriers. On top of finding a doctor to deliver the abortion, women are required to follow a demanding bureaucratic procedure. This includes obtaining an appointment request form, providing proof of ability to pay, and a plan for transportation to and from the clinic. More frustratingly, none of this paperwork can be done without the assistance of a prison employee. Even if women are able to complete this process, this tends to be incredibly time consuming and demanding, often leading appointments to be scheduled once women are too far along in their pregnancy for treatment. This presents new issues deriving from the validity of late term abortions, a controversial argument that differs between states.
As a direct consequence of these barriers, many incarcerated, pregnant women find themselves unable to exercise their constitutional right to choose and are forced to go through with the pregnancy. Unfortunately, obtaining proper pre and postnatal care is no easier than obtaining an abortion. Although the 8th Amendment requires prisons and jails to offer prenatal care, the quality of the care is unregulated and can be incredibly subpar. The Bureau of Justice published statistics that claimed only 54% of pregnant women in prisons and jails across the US received adequate prenatal care. Postnatal care is also severely lacking as women not only face physical health concerns but also mental and emotional ones. The lack of support for new mothers who are already vulnerable due to the fact that they are in prison reinforces why incarcerated women should have their right to a safe abortion if they so choose.
Although abortion is legal for women who are incarcerated, there are few institutions in place to protect that right. In the 2005 case Roe v. Crawford, the plaintiff challenged the Missouri Department of Corrections’s refusal to transport her to an off-site clinic for an elective abortion and subsequently won. This brought attention to the fact that reproductive healthcare for incarcerated women is not only a right, but a necessity. A refusal to acknowledge it as such is unconstitutional.
This issue ties into a larger conversation about the ways in which the women’s right to choose is globally under attack. For women in prison, this offensive is accentuated by an already biased prison system that perpetuates the cycle of societal inequality that already disproportionately affects women. Incarcerated women should not have to forfeit their right to choose whether they have a child nor should they have to forfeit their right to adequate pre and postnatal care should they choose to keep the pregnancy. We must demand better of facilities that are supposed to uphold the constitutional rights of all of their inmates. As of now, there exist far too many barriers for incarcerated women to access the reproductive health services that they are entitled to.
Edited by Gabriela McGuinty.
Jasmine Acharya is in her fourth and final year at McGill University finishing her B.A. in Economics with a minor in the History and Philosophy of Science. As a staff writer for Catalyst she is particularly interested in wealth inequality and women’s health issues.