In and beyond prison, reproductive justice is a State responsibility

Christiane Taubira the former French minister of justice likes to remind the public of the government’s responsibility toward the vulnerable.  She had to defend this position while trying to make the penal system in France more comprehensive. She was only partially successful. The state of vulnerability comes very fast when unwanted pregnancy starts. Even though such situations are produced by a man and a woman, the burden remains entirely on the woman. If we add another layer to the state of vulnerability, such as poverty, things become immediately more complicated for the woman.

In the United States, the state does not assume its responsibility toward the vulnerable, who are sexualized, racialized and declassified instead of being supported. The state uses the vulnerable as a source of surplus value through its imprisonment making the institution an industrial complex with contractors running the game. They even charge women prisoners for their basic amenities, such as soap. In this combination of neoliberal development of consumerism and unfettered capital gain, punishing women as members of the vulnerable combines growing inequalities with awesome wealth building.

Trump and his team have brought this idea to its paroxysm, but everything was in place before this election.

The right to abort is a constitutional right that should be respected everywhere, but the case of access to abortion points to the lack of reproductive justice, inside prison and outside. Women in need of abortion often experience stigmatization, reinforcing the sentiment of disqualification as full citizens. In prison, the challenge to wield this right to abortion is real, with enormous discrepancies from state to state and from county to county.

Worldwide, 33% of women prisoners are in the US, and so it is important to examine the reasons for the push to punish women with the detention conditions worsening the punishment itself. The number of incarcerated women in the United States has increased 700% between 1980 and 2014. Being poor is a condition for incarceration and particularly affects women. As the Prison Policy Initiative exposed in its latest report 72% of incarcerated women had an income less than $22 500 while the rate is 48% for non-incarcerated women, and for men 23% for non-incarcerated men compared to 57% for incarcerated men.

Pregnant women are sent to prison, jail, or immigration detention centers. In federal prisons 1 in 33 women and 1 in 25 in state prisons are pregnant. The number is hard to establish in other kinds of detention facility.

If women decide or are intimidated to pursue their pregnancy behind bars, they face harsh conditions with disastrous prenatal conditions in detention facilities in general. In 2011, 38 states had no prenatal policies and 41 states did not require prenatal nutrition. Children born in prison are removed from their mothers right after birth, which demonstrates that a child’s well-being has no meaning when the child is born in prison, another double standard.

In addition, there is no adequate health care for inmates in the United States, though, based on the 8th Amendment, prisoners are the only ones who have a constitutional right to medical care. Instead, medical care in prison is often decided through court orders by penal and judicial personnel who have no medical expertise, and so treatments are delayed, ignored, or never performed.

If women inmates don’t want to become mothers, although it is their constitutional right to have access to abortion, few states offer comprehensive solutions. In most of states, the women must deal with a hodgepodge of rules and regulations, all defined from the male-standard of incarceration. Generally, the hurdles are numerous, high, and burdensome. From having access to a clinic to payment to transport, every step is an “undue burden” for women prisoners in most states. As ACLU attorneys recall, the US Supreme Court Roe v Wade decision clearly said “laws that restrict abortion access cannot create an `undue burden.’”

The legal dispute around abortion in prison should be taken seriously by everyone outside of prison who believe that respecting the dignity of women as full citizens means ensuring they control their reproduction. Women have been sentenced to jail for the failure of the state to provide abortion or prenatal services to the vulnerable. The Purvi Patel case is one of too many cases that proves that the State is not concerned with women’s well-being, especially when in a state of vulnerability.

ACLU and other groups have called for more research on the application of reproductive rights inside the United States penal systems. Although this demand is important to resist the conservative anti-abortion wave, the invisibility of living conditions of women behind bars is full of lessons about the way attacks on women’s right and reproductive justice is waged in general and its social meaning. When state leaders are ready to fulfill their responsibilities to serve the vulnerable, often women and more often women of color and/or women prisoners, they will serve all women and the society better.

 

(Photo Credit: National Women’s Law Center) (Infographic credit: Prison Policy Initiative)

State terrorism against women: Purvi Patel and the erosion of reproductive justice in the U.S.

It is now four months since an Indiana court sentenced Purvi Patel to 70 years in prison for feticide and neglect of a dependent, based on an obsolete method called the floating lung test which determined the fetus was alive, not stillborn as Patel claimed. Despite an initial flurry of protest from various organizations internationally, such as National Advocates for Pregnant Women and Manavi, since their April and May 2015, there has been silence in the news media regarding her cruel and unjust conviction.

Looking at this case within the framework of the crumbling reproductive justice for women highlights important factors that are becoming more widespread across the U.S. Patel’s case is part of a growing history of women who have been convicted for miscarriages. With the erosion of reproductive justice in the U.S., women’s intentional abortions, miscarriages and giving birth to a stillborn child increasingly come under judicial scrutiny. In Patel’s case, the Indiana law penalizes women for getting abortions outside state sanctions. So even if abortion is legal under federal law, state law found Patel guilty.

Would her sentence be different had she been a resident of New York or California, since the cutoff dates for obtaining legal abortion differ between states? This question gets murkier, when we put race and class into the heavily gendered mix. The arbitrariness of the law when applied to women is dumbfounding.

If the abortion pill can be legally obtained in the U.S., why is it illegal to obtain abortion pills by mail? It would be absurd to restrict pharmacies in other countries to mail abortion pills to the U.S. So the prosecutor in the case argued the obvious – that the fetus was a person and needed to be protected from the mother who was trying to kill it. The absurd and cruel outcome is that the case was treated like first degree murder, instead of a case of unintended pregnancy, the mother’s attempt to abort (legal in many countries, including some states in the U.S. currently), and birth of a stillborn fetus. Patel did not receive any respite from medical practitioners or the law.

Does Patel’s attempt to go to a hospital because of her bleeding that led to the doctor and law enforcement officer reporting her “illegal act” mean that pregnant women would fear getting medical help? This is exactly the outcome, says Lynn Paltrow of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. Doctors who are supposed to be advocates for patients are now turning against their female patients based on the law of the state, and sometimes their belief systems. Forget the Hippocratic oath!

In India, where feticide is prevalent, the judicial system is caught between legal abortion, which was partly strengthened by a population control policy, and the government’s attempt to dissuade women from aborting female fetuses. It is often difficult to say for sure if an abortion was just that, an abortion, totally legal, or a female feticide. How can the same abortion if legal be also illegal—this is the conundrum for Indian courts. As social scientists point out, we need to look at the large social system—institutions, families, and so on that promote male privilege; so we need to figure out how to change the culture instead of penalizing women.

Recently, an Indian reporter said Purvi Patel’s alleged feticide would be “normal” in India. I would argue that it is important to combat a culture that would advocate feticide; by the same token, we need to combat a culture that penalizes women for obtaining an abortion and tells her summarily that her body, and her fetus, is the property of the State. Apart from the legal determination on Purvi Patel’s case, the very fact of women not being allowed any right over their reproductive functions is outrageous. And to be eviscerated of freedom by being sent to prison, by arguing that self-induced abortion is a crime, is an egregious wrong.

 

 

 

(Photo Credit: Kostsov/Thinkstock) (Original drawing by Pierre Colin Thibert)

Who remembers Purvi Patel? Where’s the outrage?

Who remembers Purvi Patel? On February 6th this year we discussed her conviction on two contradictory charges of first killing her fetus and then neglecting her baby.

Now she is sentenced to 20 years in prison by a court that never believed that her baby was stillborn, that she was scared and panicked, that she did not know when she became pregnant, that she had no intention of being pregnant, that nobody talked about her as a person.

The sentence was determined by the age of the “victim” said the judge. Of course, from her point of view the victim was not Purvi Patel.

In this competition of morality over whose life is worth being protected everybody loses, but Purvi Patel’s life is destroyed. She and the genitor needed classes on reproductive health, access to contraception and abortion services. She got prison, and he remains free.

The media told her story using populist assumptions to draw attention to details that were either unproven or irrelevant. By contrast, none of them focused on the discrepancies of the evidence presented by the prosecutor during the trial. None of them questioned the pathology report that used a dubious test to determine that the baby was alive at birth. Even the determination of the age of the pregnancy was unclear. What was clear was the determination of the prosecutor to erase the voice of Purvi Patel.

As Lynn Paltrow declared, “What the Patel case demonstrates is both women who have abortion and those who experience pregnancy loss may now be subject to investigation, arrest, public trial and incarceration.”

The real tragedy is that the State never fulfilled its responsibility to provide any help to Purvi Patel. Instead it chose to destroy her life. Where’s the outrage?

 

 

(Image Credit: Kostsov/Thinkstock)  (Original drawing by Pierre Colin Thibert)