The probable end of Roe v. Wade is a terrifying possibility for people in jails and prisons around the country, where reproductive health care is already inadequate.
“[People] will be forced to carry a pregnancy and give birth as part of their prison, their punishment,” said Carolyn Sufrin, an associate professor of gynaecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “It’s difficult to forecast the extent of trauma and severe health impacts that this may cause, but I believe we can expect it to be significant.”
With over 200,000 women already jailed, women are the fastest growing prisoner demographic. According to The Sentencing Project and the Prison Policy Initiative, at least 58,000 pregnant women enter the criminal justice system each year.
“Reversing Roe will force thousands of jailed persons to give birth and carry pregnancies in health-care institutions that have been shown to be incapable of delivering sufficient prenatal care,” says Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU National Prison Project.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, thirteen states have so-called trigger laws that might take effect if federal abortion protections are repealed. These laws practically prohibit all abortions, with some laws prohibiting abortions after six or eight weeks of pregnancy.
According to Bureau of Justice Statistics data, at least seven of these states have some of the highest rates of female incarceration in the country: Idaho, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wyoming, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Mississippi.
According to Guttmacher, if the Supreme Court weakens or overturns Roe v. Wade, at least 26 states are guaranteed or likely to restrict abortion through trigger laws and other fixed or expected regulations. For tens of thousands of individuals each year, being compelled to give birth behind jail might become a reality.
Adequate reproductive care, including abortion access, is already scarce in these hospitals. When it comes to providing health care at these facilities, there are currently no federal guidelines for reproductive care and no required system of control.
According to reports, some women are tied to bedposts during childbirth, while others are forced to labour in solitary confinement. According to Sufrin and Kendrick, some persons have had miscarriages or other pregnancy difficulties while in jail.
Alejandra Pablos, a reproductive justice activist and former inmate, told ABC News that she believes she was denied bodily autonomy while detained.
She recalls long wait times for doctors, inadequate diet, and difficulties getting basic care like birth control and OB-GYN visits while held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities.
“We will never have reproductive justice in the United States as long as these things exist — prisons, cages, threats to our self-determination, the right to make decisions about my sexuality, my body.” According to ABC News, Pablos
Miscarriage, early birth, and low birth weight are all risks for pregnant jailed women.
“There have been countless examples of people in jails and prisons around the country who did not receive sufficient prenatal care and suffered miscarriages, stillbirths, or other bad consequences,” Kendrick added.
In terms of abortions, a Guttmacher report from 2021 revealed that many prisons and jails make detained women pay for the procedure: two-thirds of the 19 state prisons investigated that allowed abortions demanded payment from the incarcerated woman.
Only 25% of the jails that permitted abortions asked the jailed woman to pay for the operation. Abortions accounted for 1.3 percent of pregnancies that ended in prisons and 15 percent in jails during the period.
Several jails and prisons in anti-abortion states prohibited abortions entirely.
“Prisons and jails should never be places where pregnant women should be,” Kendrick said. Given that the great majority of incarcerated women are charged or convicted of nonviolent offences, she advocated for diversion programmes or early release for pregnant women.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, at least a quarter of women in prison have never been convicted of a crime.
“They’re there because they can’t afford to leave and go back to their families,” Kendrick explained.
Experts argue that if Roe is overturned, the gaps in the foundations of abortion and reproductive care in jails, prisons, and other detention centres will only make life more perilous for women who are incarcerated.