Shackling and Childbirth

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By Dawn Blagrove, Executive Director, Carolina Justice Policy Center

I delivered two daughters in my life. Regardless of your personal spiritual beliefs, bringing forth life is nothing short of a miracle and the most connected I ever felt to understanding the meaning of life.  Seeing my girls for the first time, after spending 9 months sharing one physical space, are moments I cherish.  

Now, take that moment and imagine that you are shackled to a hospital bed like an animal, surrounded by armed law enforcement officers.  Your hands and feet are shackled and there is a chain across your 9 month pregnant belly.  During labor, you are chained to your hospital bed, with limited mobility and no opportunity to walk around.  In the event you need emergency medical attention, for the safety of you and your unborn child, it could take precious minutes to get you unchained to allow medical staff to provide necessary care.  

For many expectant mothers who find themselves in the unfortunate position of being in jail or prison when they are ready to deliver, the beauty of childbirth is barbarically marred by shackles.  The practice of shackling laboring women speaks not only to the value placed on women, but also the value placed on children.  It’s time to have a real conversation about the healthcare of women and children in the criminal justice system.

Women are the fastest growing portion of incarcerated populations in America. Between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700%, rising from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 215,332 in 2014.  On average, 4% of those women are pregnant during their prison term. North Carolina prisons houses some 3,052 women inmates.  While the vast majority of people imprisoned in North Carolina are men that is no excuse for a one size fits all approach to health care practices.  Women have unique reproductive health needs that are, at best, being given no intentional thought, or more troublingly, being willfully disregarded.  

During childbirth, however, it’s not just the wellbeing of the mother, but also the wellbeing of the child that should be considered when developing safe medical policies and procedures.  Both the American Medical Association and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologist have taken strong stands against the use of shackles during childbirth.   Medical professionals insist that the practice is unnecessarily demeaning and interferes with a doctor’s ability to safely practice medicine.

The federal government has adopted an anti-shackling policy and some states have passed laws or policies restricting shackling, but North Carolina is not one of them.  Change never comes easily.  That is especially true for issues that do not involve or impact men.  Despite the great strides women have made for social and civic equality, we still have so far to go.  While we are raising our voices and spirits for change, we must not forget the weakest among us.  Incarcerated women are an often overlooked and forgotten part of the fight against mass incarceration and women’s rights.  We cannot afford to allow them to be forgotten.  We are them and they are us.  No woman should ever be shackled during childbirth.  No child should come into the world, literally, in a state of bondage.  Please raise awareness in your sphere of influence about the barbaric shackling of incarcerated pregnant women by simply talking about it with your friends and family.  Raising awareness is a good start, but we must then demand that our elected officials pass laws, not just policies and procedures, that stop this practice once and for all.  




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