Will Massachusetts Stop Shackling Women Prisoners in Childbirth?

 

Massachusetts and Maryland legislatures are considering abolishing the practice of shackling women prisoners in childbirth. Last Friday, the Massachusetts legislature moved, inched, a little closer to banning the practice: “In a step toward joining the 18 states that have passed legislation restricting the shackling of pregnant incarcerated women, the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Public Safety has released a bill that would prohibit such shackling in Massachusetts during labor and childbirth, post-delivery recuperation, and transportation to the hospital. The bill, sponsored by Senator Karen Spilka, has now passed the first hurdle to passage.”

This bill has languished in committee for ten years. Each year, it would come up in the House, be assigned to the Judiciary Committee, and sit. Each year that happened, for ten years. Finally, this year, Senator Karen Spilka said enough already, and moved the legislation in the Senate. Last Friday, it moved out of committee.

The bill does more than end shackling, although that would be something in itself. It “promotes safe pregnancies for female inmates.” The authors of the bill understand that shackling women prisoners is part of a program to deny that pregnant women prisoners are, indeed, women who are pregnant. Childbirth is childbirth is childbirth. Women should never be shackled during childbirth.

Yet they are.

Marianne Bullock is Co-Founder, with Lisa Andrews, of The Prison Birth Project. She has worked in Western Massachusetts with over 100 pregnant women prisoners: “Passing this bill is crucial. Ending the practice of shackling and restraint of pregnant, laboring and postpartum women in Massachusetts will allow mothers throughout the commonwealth to give birth with dignity—free of restraint.”

Senator Karen Spilka argued, “Shackling pregnant women interferes with a physician’s ability to treat mothers and their newborns, and it is an inhumane, unacceptable practice. This bill is an important and necessary step toward improving reproductive health for female prisoners and ensuring safe, healthy outcomes for women and their babies.” She added, “It still is amazing to me that in 2014 we have to work to even pass such a bill. I believe very strongly we need a single standard in these situations when women are pregnant and incarcerated, and the standard should be no shackles.”

The standard must be no shackles. If Massachusetts passes the bill, and that’s not at all a foregone conclusion, it will become the 19th state to do so. In more than half of the United States, the simple truth that women in childbirth should not be shackled is neither simple nor true. Whether the ordinary and everyday spectacle of the shackled woman in childbirth reiterates the motif of slavery or that of the witch-hunt, the point is it must end. Now. The alibi of modernity expressed in the surprise that in 2014 we still have this work to do must be set aside, and instead of surprise, we should be ashamed and disgusted with ourselves, for living in a place and time where women in childbirth are shackled. Stop shackling pregnant women now!

 

(Image Credit: RadicalDoula)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.