Columnist Carrie N. Baker: Pregnancy as punishment — The impact of abortion bans on incarcerated women and girls

  • Carrie N. Baker FILE PHOTO

Published: 7/28/2022 6:27:30 PM

The Supreme Court’s reversal of longstanding constitutional abortion rights in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is falling hard on young and low-income women, who don’t have the resources to travel out of state to obtain abortion health care. But an often-overlooked population especially hard hit is incarcerated women and girls, and those on probation and parole.

Before Dobbs, access to abortion for incarcerated women and girls was extremely difficult because they are required to pay for their abortions, transportation and guards, if allowed at all. Post-Dobbs, prisons in states banning abortion can entirely block incarcerated pregnant people from seeking abortion health care out of state and can even block people on probation and parole from traveling out of state to obtain abortions. As a result, unwanted pregnancy and childbirth is now an additional form of punishment in states banning abortion.

Close to 900,000 women and girls are under the control of federal, state and local carceral systems in the U.S., reports the Prison Policy Initiative. This number includes 231,000 who are incarcerated and 666,413 on probation or parole. Approximately four percent are pregnant at any given time, of whom 18 percent would choose abortion if available. Therefore, there are approximately 34,000 pregnant people in the system on any given day and over 6,000 who would choose abortion if they could access it. As a result of Dobbs, seven states ban abortion entirely and another three states ban abortion at six weeks. The Guttmacher Institute predicts that over half the country will eventually ban abortion. If this happens, then 3,000 women and girls each year in the U.S. carceral system may be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.

Some women and girls in the carceral system are pregnant because of rape. Despite passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003, rape and sexual assault in prisons continues at epidemic rates, including male prison guards raping incarcerated women and girls. According to the 2020 report The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline, 81 percent of incarcerated girls in South Carolina have been victims of sexual violence before or during incarceration. South Carolina has already banned abortion at six weeks. The Supreme Court’s decision to eliminate the constitutional right to abortion is having a particularly dire effect on girls and women pregnant by rape.

Whether pregnant by rape or otherwise, incarcerated people forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term face dangerous health consequences. The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world, especially for women of color, who are also more likely to be in the carceral system in the first place. Forced childbirth puts their very lives at risk. At the same time, prisons often deny incarcerated people quality prenatal care and many prisons shackle women during childbirth, posing serious health risks.

For people on parole and probation, traveling out of state requires formal approval from probation or parole officers, who have wide discretion about what they approve and can delay or block traveling out of state for abortion. Transfer to a new state is very difficult, slow bureaucratically, and will not be available to most incarcerated women. Moreover, unemployment, poverty and housing insecurity for people on parole and probation can make paying for travel and abortion health care out of state insurmountable. These same factors make caring for the children they are forced to carry and birth extraordinarily difficult.

As a result of Dobbs, women and girls in the carceral system who are coerced into childbirth now face lifelong repercussions, whether they raise these children, give them up for adoption or lose them to the foster care system after termination of their parental rights because of incarceration or poverty.

Exhaustive peer-reviewed research definitively shows that denying women abortion health care results in more serious physical and emotional health problems than if they had received an abortion and makes them more likely to experience economic hardship and insecurity lasting for years than those able to access abortion. Existing children of women denied abortions were over three times more likely to live in households below the federal poverty level, and they were less likely to achieve developmental milestones than the existing children of women who received abortion health care. These impacts are especially dire for women involved in the carceral system, who are more likely to be economically vulnerable in the first place.

For thousands of pregnant women and girls under the control and surveillance of the criminal legal system in the United States, the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs has made coerced pregnancy and childbirth yet one more inhumane form of punishment in the United States of America.

Carrie N. Baker is a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College and a regular contributor to Ms. Magazine.

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