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New efforts to criminalize substance use and pregnancy repeat racist history

July 21, 2014

My latest article for Colorlines is about the new efforts to criminalize pregnant women for substance abuse. Sadly these kinds of efforts are not new, nor are they actually helping moms or kids.

The main problem with these kinds of stories, and prosecutions, is they do nothing to address the very real substance abuse and addiction issues facing many people in the United States today. Despite decades of incredible spending and increased incarceration in response to the war on drugs, addiction and substance abuse continue. Some policy makers have acknowledged this reality and begun looking for a different ways to address substance abuse. “We’ve really tried to reframe drug policy not as a crime but as a public health-related issue, and that our response on the national level is that we not criminalize addiction,” said Michael Botticelli, acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “We want to make sure our response and our national strategy is based on the fact that addiction is a disease.”

There is no evidence that incarcerating women who use drugs during pregnancy will do anything to improve their health, or their children’s health. In fact, these criminalizations actually worsen the health of the newborn, and make access to appropriate drug treatment for the mom unlikely. Mallory Loyola, the woman charged under the Tennessee law, was in jail for at least three days before being released on bond, just two days after giving birth, during which her child was in custody of Child Protective Services. Kylee Sunderlin of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW), an organization that works closely with women charged under these types of laws, explained that when a baby is diagnosed with what’s called Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome—or, the constellation of symptoms that reflects substance exposure inutero—established treatments for it include skin to skin contact with the mother and breastfeeding. That treatment is next to impossible if the mother is incarcerated and her child is in state custody.

Read the full thing here.

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Coercive sterilization is not a thing of the past

July 8, 2013

This article in The Modesto Bee, authored by Corey G. Johnson of the Center for Investigative Reporting, shows what many of us have assumed: coercive sterilization is not a historical practice—it’s a present reality. While fights rage on across the nation to maintain our access to safe and legal abortion procedures, for some folks, the fight to maintain the ability to become pregnant, and parent those kids, continues.

These fights, primarily because they impact low-income folks of color, don’t get the kind of attention and resources that other battles do. There is racism and classism in this divide, and we have to do all we can to raise hell and attention for the ways population control efforts continue today in this country.

From the article:

Doctors under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sterilized nearly 150 female inmates from 2006 to 2010 without required state approvals, the Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

Former inmates and prisoner advocates maintain that prison medical staff coerced the women, targeting those deemed likely to return to prison in the future.

The article explains that the reason these procedures required state approval is precisely because of the history of coercive sterilization for incarcerated women. Court cases in the 1970s based on the discovery that Latina women in California public hospitals were being sterilized without proper consent led to a set of rules regarding how and when you can properly consent to a sterilization procedure (like a tubal ligation).

In order to obtain consent, you have to provide consent information and documents in the patient’s native language (Latina women were found to have signed papers in English consenting to the procedure, despite not speaking English) and you also can’t obtain consent during labor or delivery.

In addition, this article explains that federal funds could not be used to provide sterilization procedures to incarcerated folks because of fear of coercion.

From this reporting, which relied on the work of Justice Now, an organization working with folks on the inside to eradicate prisons, coercion is exactly what took place in many of these sterilizations.

One interesting thread throughout the article, which is distinct from the historical incidences of coercive sterilization, is the use of repeat c-sections as a medical rationale by the doctors quoted for these procedures. With repeat c-sections, they say, there is a risk of uterine rupture upon subsequent pregnancies.

The question there, of course, is why so many c-sections to begin with? I don’t buy it, and assume it’s just a medical attempt to cover up what is really a procedure pushed because of judgement about who should parent, and how many children someone should have, particularly someone who is incarcerated.

I increasingly get more and more infuriated about how little attention in the reproductive rights arena goes to the struggles of low-income, people of color trying to maintain their right to pregnancy, parenting and bodily autonomy. If you are truly doing reproductive justice work, than this issue should get as much attention as any abortion rights fight.

Want to know how to support these efforts? A donation to Justice Now is a good place to start.


Prison Birth Project in Western MA looking for new volunteer doulas

July 9, 2012

A fabulous organization in Western Massachusetts is looking for new volunteer birth doulas. They work with folks who are incarcerated at a local prison, work that I think is among the most important we can do as a doulas.

More information:

Our organization follows a reproductive justice model of care, which recognizes that multiple oppressions are at play in creating a lack of access to healthcare and rights and furthers reproductive oppression. We see reproductive healthcare, rights and justice as inherently connected to human rights and social justice and seek to provide care in align with those beliefs. The model we provide is holistic and centered on the whole experience, body and mind of the people we work with.

The nature of the work we do is sensitive. You will encounter situations both medical and personal experiences that you may not have encountered within your practice before, because of this we are selective about our doulas and seek to provide a high level of care (DON’T let this intimidate you!). You do not need to be a certified Doula, just have some solid birth or abortion doula experience. You must be open and committed to learning new ideas and concepts as well as medical information and researching on your own at times. Once we receive applications we will select candidates, we will set up a time to have a 15 min phone interview with you and invite you to an upcoming training for PBP doulas. You will be required to complete a application at the correctional facility and will have a criminal background check (you may have a previous criminal record, but can not have any open cases/warrants/parking tickets or violations), you will attend a 2 hour orientation at the jail and then be able to attend births, classes and groups with PBP.

We ask for a volunteer commitment of at least 1 yr. This does not mean you are oncall 24/7, you can either take individual clients or volunteer shifts to be oncall, but you must attend one on one appointments with clients at times throughout the year. The facility we work in is located in Chicopee, Ma and the hospital that most clients are transfered to is in Springfield, you are required to be at the facility or hospital within 1.5 hrs or being called. Some clients may be released before they deliver (which is the best case scenario) in these situations we still provide Doula care to clients and are able to refer them to other medical providers if they wish to change bc of medical conditions (we have homebirth midwives and other hospitals to refer clients with certain situations).

The full application is here.


Holding pregnant women to a dangerous and unattainable standard

May 22, 2012

I have a new column at RH Reality Check where I’ll be posting every other week. My first column was appropriately published today, the same day that Bei Bei Shuai was released from jail.

Bei Bei hugging family upon being released from jail

Photo via National Advocates for Pregnant Women

Bei Bei Shuai is finally out of jail after 435 days. In case you don’t remember her case, the details are here.

The not-so-good news is that the Indiana Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal asking them to drop all the charges, which means she will likely have to go to trial.

My column focuses on how Bei Bei’s case is just one piece of a much larger and really dangerous trend: holding pregnant women accountable for guaranteeing a healthy pregnancy outcome.

As a society we have absorbed the myth that the right doctor and the right use of modern medicine can circumvent illness and death in pregnancy and birth. Some of the blame for this myth falls on doctors and the medical industry. Although new technologies, particularly developments in neonatal medicine, have significantly improved chances of survival for newborns, we still cannot guarantee a healthy pregnancy and birth outcome for every pregnancy.

But these expectations don’t stop with providers — they’ve now extended to women themselves, who do not have the support of insurers, or employers, to protect them when they fail to live up to these expectations. We also believe the myth that pregnant women can guarantee a healthy birth outcome.

If doctors are expected to perform heroic acts to save the lives of newborns, women are expected to do even more to make the impossible possible — often expected to put their own life and well-being on the line.

And the punishment for not achieving perfection in pregnancy and birth goes way beyond a lawsuit, a multi-million dollar settlement, or even the loss of employment. Increasingly, the punishment is imprisonment.

Read the whole thing here.


Take one step today to stop the state from criminalizing pregnant women

March 21, 2012

I know we all work on many important issues, but this one is really important, and deserves five minutes of your time and attention.

Bei Bei Shuai.

While the details of her case are super important, the reason this deserves your attention right now is that these cases set a really dangerous precedent of punishing women who fail to guarantee a healthy pregnancy outcome. (h/t to Lynn Paltrow)

Now as birth activists we know how dangerous this is, and how it can (and is) being used against women who try to refuse c-sections and other maternity related care. NO ONE can guarantee a healthy pregnancy outcome. It’s impossible. This is about fighting for autonomy in health care, and to prevent the state from criminalizing pregnant women.

Here is Bei Bei’s story:

In 2010, Bei Bei Shuai, a pregnant woman living in Indiana became so depressed that she attempted to end her own life. With help from friends who intervened, however, she survived. Although Ms. Shuai did everything she could, including undergoing cesarean surgery, to ensure that her baby survived, her newborn died shortly after birth.

Ms. Shuai was arrested for the crime of murder (defined to include viable fetuses) and feticide (defined to include ending a human pregnancy at any stage). The sentence for murder can be the death penalty or 45 years-to-life. The sentence for attempted feticide is up to 20 years. Both of these kinds of laws are promoted and supported by “pro-life” organizations.

Bei Bei’s own mental health struggles add another layer of questions of disability rights to this case.

Criminalizing pregnant women does nothing but harm. Bei Bei should not be in prison. No pregnant woman should go to prison because of the outcome of her pregnancy. Ever.

Sign this petition in support of Bei Bei. This is seriously scary shit people.

Via National Advocates for Pregnant Women


Lawyer to shackle herself during childbirth to protest shackling of incarcerated women

October 4, 2011

In my latest article for Colorlines Magazine, I write about the efforts to prevent prisons and jails (and detention centers) from shackling incarcerated pregnant women. What inspired me to write about this issue, which has been covered pretty extensively by the progressive media in the past, were Rebecca Brodie’s plans to shackle herself during her own birth as a protest of the practice. From the article:

Rebecca Brodie sits in her suburban Massachusetts home, talking on the phone with me while her family member sits nearby, filming the interview. The oldest female correctional facility in the United States, MCI-Framingham, is just a short eight-minute drive away. “When I conceived my third child earlier this year, it really hit home for me because everywhere I go I pass the prison,” Brodie explained. “I have all these choices and opportunities: who do I want in the room with me, do I want a water birth, or a home birth? Obviously the incarcerated women can’t make these choices.”

The proximity of the women’s prison and Brodie’s pro-bono legal work with incarcerated women is what inspired the protest she’s planning for December, when her third child is born. If all goes according to plan, she’ll be laboring and delivering her baby in metal restraints that restrict her arms and legs. She’s planning to simulate the same conditions that many incarcerated pregnant women face when delivering in state prisons and jails, including some of the women housed at the prison right by her home.

I’m still not sure what I think about Brodie’s plans. It’s an extreme form of protest, one that involves much spectacle (and a documentary to boot). But what it was clear everyone I talked to cares about the most is bringing attention to this horrific practice in hopes of ending it.

Only 14 states specifically ban the practice, and even those states don’t necessarily ban the use of shackles during transport. Governor Brown in California has a bill waiting on his desk for signature that would ban the practice during transport as well. The more work I do in the field of social justice the more I believe that the practices of our criminal justice system are some of the most dire issues we face today. We incarcerate more people than any other country in the world, and the treatment of people on the inside brings up many, many human rights questions.

I’m glad I was able to talk to one of the founders of volunteer doula program that I seriously admire, Marianne Bullock from the Prison Birth Project, for this article. Marianne and the other PBP folks work at a prison in Massachusetts, trying to address the myriad challenges moms on the inside face, including shackling.

Read the full article here.


California Governor Schwarzenegger vetoes anti-shackling bill

September 28, 2010

Activists in California have been pushing hard to pass a piece of legislation, California Bill AB 1900, that would outlaw the shackling of pregnant incarcerated women in CA prisons.

The bill was particularly good because it also covered shackling during transport to appointments as well as labor and delivery. It had overwhelming support, as most of these bills have had, but Governor Schwarzenegger decided to veto the bill.

It’s a big disappointment, but the good news is there will be a new Governor in California come November and folks can try again.

Read more in this op-ed from one of the advocates of the bill.


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