Since 1980, the number of women incarcerated in the United States has increased by more than 700%, from 26,378 to about 219,000 in 2017. Many of these women are mothers—about 80% of women in jail have children—and many are pregnant.
Data on the number of pregnant women who are incarcerated is limited, but we know that about 1,400 women per year give birth while incarcerated. The number of incarcerated women who have miscarriages, stillbirths, or who obtain abortions each year is not known. Women who are incarcerated must rely upon the system to access all of their healthcare, but because having maternal care available for prisoners was not considered a necessity until the recent population growth of women in prison, only a few states have laws regulating the issue. Even fewer states have laws or corrections policies in place regarding abortion access for incarcerated women.
This dearth of laws allows prison wardens or jail administrators to make individual decisions regarding whether a woman in their institution can receive an abortion. This individualized decision-making process has led to many court cases, as incarcerated women battle for their constitutional right to access abortion care, even while under state control. Importantly, federal funding restrictions can also curtail a women’s ability to access abortion while incarcerated. The Hyde Amendment prohibits women in federal custody from obtaining an abortion except under limited circumstances unless she can come up with the funds herself, and many states do not provide coverage to abortion for women in state custody.
One group that has worked to support incarcerated women seeking access to reproductive healthcare, including abortion, is the Minnesota Prison Doula Project. The Doula Project works in compassionate solidarity with incarcerated women to create community, opportunity, and change through the provision of pregnancy and parenting support for incarcerated pregnant people and mothers. The Doula Project provides birth support from trained doulas, as well as both group-based and individual education. All of these services support the goal of nurturing healthy relationships as well as increasing parenting confidence and skills. Though the work of the doulas was initially focused on prenatal care, birth, and mothering, they have recently aided a few of their clients in accessing abortion care, which demonstrates the group’s responsiveness to the needs of the community of women that they serve.
Despite the advocacy of these doulas dedicated to full-spectrum reproductive healthcare, some incarcerated women are denied access to the care they desire because of what appears to be the personal opposition of prison or jail staff. One recent case in Minnesota involved an incarcerated woman who was able to access abortion only after a lawyer became involved in her case. Her lawyer speculates that his involvement spurred the prison to take her request seriously. However, the woman was retroactively charged by the prison for the costs of her transportation, causing all the money put into her prison account by her family, as well as her wages for work, to be immediately docked. In this way, she was punished financially for her reproductive decision.
Denying or creating unnecessary or unduly burdensome obstacles to abortion access could be extremely common; there is no way to know how frequently sheriffs or wardens use these kinds of tactics to get around advocates for women’s rights, or how many inmates are lacking advocates all together. Rarely do we hear the stories of women who are incarcerated, and many prisons and jails keep no records of the number of pregnant inmates that pass through their institutions, let alone the outcomes of these pregnancies. Advocates and organizations are fighting on the ground to provide services and support to those who need it most, but they are frequently hindered by a lack of clear legislation. To move forward on this issue, direct services must be paired with policy change and a wider awareness of the variety of abuses suffered by those incarcerated in the United States.