Birthing Justice: End Shackling Now

It baffles me that we, as a society, allow the horrific practice of shackling to continue without more outrage.
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Every time I hear or read the story of a survivor who was forced to birth in chains, I am reminded of how broken our prison system is. The legacy of prisons, especially in the South, evolved from the convict-lease system, a thinly veiled continuation of the enslavement of Black people (See Slavery By Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon). Today, Black women, disproportionately comprising the prison population, are subjected to very similar treatment as their ancestors in the first half of the twentieth century.

As a Black woman, this both infuriates and saddens me. As a midwife, health educator and mother of three, I have given birth, as well as helped many families welcome their babies into loving arms. It baffles me that we, as a society, allow the horrific practice of shackling to continue without more outrage. Anyone who has had a baby, or has been a witness to the experience, knows that in labor and birth, we must walk through the fire of who we are to become who we will be as mothers and parents. This journey is challenging and fulfilling, scary and exhilarating. It means different things to different families, but what it should not signify is torture and humiliation.

There is no need for shackling, as the vast majority of incarcerated women are there for nonviolent crimes. The average person in a women's prison is of reproductive age, is a mother to minor children, and is incarcerated for crimes of poverty and addiction. Many are survivors of abuse. Most are already in high-risk pregnancies. What incarcerated people need are respectful and comprehensive health services. The practice of shackling only furthers victimization and increases risk.

The personal stories of pregnant women across the country being shackled are horrifying enough, but even more horrifying is the fact that this issue does not get the level of attention that it urgently deserves. Reports indicate that pregnant inmates are frequently shackled during pregnancy. Despite the dozens of statements from some of the nation's most prominent health organizations, such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Public Health Association, this barbaric practice continues in the large majority of states in the U.S.

During pregnancy, shackling increases the risk of falls and decreases the woman's ability to protect herself and the fetus if she does fall. Shackling during labor may cause complications during delivery such as blood clots or fetal distress. Precious time can be lost unlocking and removing restraints, if emergency diagnostic and life-saving procedures become necessary. Shackling during labor and birth causes emotional distress and trauma and is cruel and unnecessary. Shackling during postpartum recovery can prevent mothers from bonding with and breastfeeding their babies for the short time they are allowed to be together.

On March 7, 2012, the legislature of Florida passed the Healthy Pregnancies for Incarcerated Women Act, becoming the first state in the Southeast to pass anti-shackling legislation. Anjali Sardeshmukh, Co-Director of Mobile Midwife, one of the organizations leading the effort to build a coalition in support of the bill, said of the victory: "You know, all people birthing babies need to be treated with some basic love and respect. This is long overdue... and I'm relieved that the bill passed."

As we, birth activists, kept late nights and early mornings working on this bill from Miami, Fl, a colleague who is also one of my dearest friends, Paris Hatcher, Executive Director of SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW, was working on a similar bill in Atlanta, Ga. It became kind of a race between the two of us to see which of our states could secure this basic human right for women first. Of course, we had hoped that both of our bills would pass this session.

Florida's bill is now set to become law this week, while Georgia's bill is still struggling to get out of committee. "We are excited about this victory in Florida and the potential this action means for Georgia," states Hatcher. "But what is truly exciting is building a regional movement for Reproductive Justice based on principles of relationship building and amplifying the voices of those who are often forgotten in public policy."

Birth justice is a key component of reproductive justice. It is a framework that recognizes that pregnant and birthing people have rights. With rising maternal death rates and racially disparate infant mortality rates, it is our responsibility as a society to think about the impact of policies which deny mothers and babies their rights to dignified and comprehensive health care. The struggle to end shackling and actualize Birth Justice continues until all pregnant people are free to birth in dignity.

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