The prison industrial complex looms large as one of the single biggest institutions which perpetuate and exacerbate unequal access to reproductive care.
“From forced sterilization to family separation, the carceral state itself is an act of reproductive violence,” writes long-time prison abolitionist and organizer Mariame Kaba. Kaba is just one of many Black feminists who have been arguing for decades that a framework of reproductive justice, rather than reproductive rights, must take into account the role of prisons and policing in the fight for true reproductive and bodily autonomy.
Echoing the ways in which white, cisgender, upper class women ignored and/or actively opposed the inclusion of Black and other women of color into the framework of voting rights, white women of the Roe v. Wade era largely framed their arguments for reproductive rights around notions of individual choice, conveniently ignoring that, for the majority of Black, Brown, and otherwise dispossessed people, the legalization of abortion was and remains largely irrelevant to their material ability to access such a procedure.
Even before Roe v. Wade, however, white women were “fighting for the right for some of us to be considered human, and then leaving some people behind,” as Alicia Garza succinctly states. She reminds us that, when the birth control pill was being developed in the 1930s, some of the advocates for it also advocated for Black women and Puerto Rican women to be forcibly sterilized.
By framing their demands around rights rather than access, white women have long failed to take into account the extent to which reproduction is a material form of labor whose conditions, like all forms of labor, are rendered uneven within a capitalist system. As Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds states: “We know in this country there are racial and economic injustices intertwined with reproductive health, and so it’s hard to pull apart the two because Black women are hit hardest by health disparities.”
Hernandez backs this claim up with statistics: “For our national hotline, 50% of the folks that call are Black, so we know who our core constituency is.” Simply arguing for a person’s legal “right” to have an abortion, then, overlooks a whole host of other barriers that those who are Black, Brown, poor, trans, undocumented, disabled and otherwise dispossessed need to overcome in order to access bodily and reproductive autonomy.
At the center of these barriers, the prison industrial complex looms large as one of the single biggest institutions which perpetuate and exacerbate unequal access to reproductive care. The Child Welfare League of American states that: “Today, there are nearly 2 million children under age 18 with a parent in prison or jail. The majority of those children are under age 10. Nationwide, 4% of women in state prisons and 3% of those in federal prisons are pregnant at sentencing. This leaves their families, and the professionals and policymakers involved, in a quandary: What should happen when infants are born in prison?”
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In her article “Do Prisoners Have Abortion Rights,” researcher Rachel Roe noted that “There are no consistently applied policies regarding abortion in prison,” and that we know very little about how prisons regulate abortion. Government regulation takes place almost entirely outside of normal channels, away from public scrutiny, and frequently results in violations of women’s constitutional rights. As of yet, only one state has passed a statute protecting prisoners’ abortion rights and only two states have promulgated administrative regulations.”
But it isn’t just the right to an abortion that’s the problem. Feminist critics of the prison system have long emphasized the multiple ways in which prison threatens motherhood and reproductive health. Ellen Barry, Anannya Bhattacharjee, Angela Davis and Cassandra Shaylor, for example, documented the serious medical neglect of pregnant prisoners in jails prisons and immigration detention centers. Such neglect endangers women’s future health and fertility as well as their current pregnancies. Reports of women giving birth on the floor of their cells are too common and miscarriage and stillbirth rates are unusually high among prisoners. Then too, some prisoners, especially those who become pregnant as a result of sexual abuse by guards, are pressured to have abortions and punished if they refuse, including being placed on 23 hour lockdown.
Then, too, a disproportionate number of people who are incarcerated in women’s prisons (including trans and gender non conforming people) are put there as punishment for exercising self defense in cases of sexual and domestic violence. How do we connect the dots to see the ways in which those seeking to flee or at least mitigate the multiply violent forces of patriarchy, poverty, and racism through safe and sustainable abortion access, gender confirmation surgery, sex work, and other modes of bodily and reproductive autonomy are disproportionately made vulnerable to the effects of the prison system?
Prisons and immigration detention centers are sites of sexual violence that inherently deny people bodily and reproductive autonomy and freedom. Not only are incarcerated people denied the ability to have or not have an abortion; if they do have children (whether by choice or not), they are forcibly separated from them at birth.
And racial disparities make the abolition of prisons all the more urgent in our fight for reproductive autonomy, since an overwhelming majority of incarcerated people are Black, and Black women are three to four more times likely than white women to die because of pregnancy related issues, according to the CDC. If these statistics are true for non incarcerated women, imagine just how much worse they are for incarcerated Black women, who are routinely denied access to reproductive care.
As the abortion bans continue to gain traction in the United States, feminists must learn from their prior mistakes. We cannot get free until all of us are free.
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