Fellow Studies Reproductive Rights of Prisoners

Interview with Wilson Center Fellow Rachel Roth

Mar 04, 2003

More than 160,000 women are incarcerated in American jails and prisons. Up to 10 percent of them are pregnant at any given time. To date, there is no legislation to standardize the reproductive rights of women prisoners. Consequently, the arbitrary treatment of these women, in many cases, has created dangerous conditions and led to neglect or abuse.

Wilson Center Fellow Rachel Roth has been researching this topic for years, primarily drawing from news reports, human rights investigations, and policy statements collected from prisons and departments of corrections, as well as from court decisions and discussions with advocates. Roth, an assistant professor of political science and women's studies at Washington University in St. Louis, has long been interested in reproductive politics and gender and racial equality. Her interest in the reproductive rights of women prisoners began in the 1990s when prosecutors charged women with "fetal abuse" for using drugs during pregnancy.

"Because police were arresting some women while they were still pregnant," said Roth, "I looked into health conditions for women in jails and prisons."

She discovered cases where sheriffs or judges were obstructing women in prison from obtaining abortions. In most cases where women obtain permission, they have to assume all costs, including transportation to the clinic and paying for the guard's time. Many women who carry their pregnancies to term report that they do not receive adequate nutrition or prenatal care and experience high miscarriage rates. In some cases, women become pregnant because of sexual abuse by prison employees.

Many prisons do not transfer pregnant women to a hospital until they go into labor, which has resulted in women giving birth in police cars or while still in their cells. Women often are shackled while in active labor and as they are delivering their babies at the hospital. And, finally, women may lose their children forever if they have to place them in foster care.

"Rape, forced childbearing, health risks, and deprivation of parental rights are unfair and extreme punishments," Roth said. "They do not serve legitimate state interests or rehabilitate anyone."

Women now represent the fastest-growing segment of America's prison population, causing overcrowding, straining already scarce resources, and worsening already poor health conditions. African-American women and Latinas are over-represented in prison, and the majority of women prisoners are serving sentences for non-violent crimes-chief among them, minor drug offenses-that now carry stiff mandatory penalties.

Roth advocates changing sentencing laws to send women (and men) convicted of non-violent, low-level offenses to treatment centers or community placement rather than to prison. She also cited the enormous cost imprisonment imposes on society. "This country spends billions of dollars on incarceration, while education and health care suffer," said Roth. "Pursuing alternatives to incarceration makes sense."

Roth also recommends changing laws to help women reintegrate into society. Existing laws, she said, prevent women from voting or obtaining public housing, food stamps, student loans, and even employment once they are released from prison, which makes it more likely they will engage in illegal activity, or wind up second-class citizens paying a permanent debt to society.

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