Our Perspectives: Birth Control in Prison has a Different Meaning
Reproductive justice, coined by SisterSong, is defined as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities”. Reproductive justice advocates focus on access to safe abortion, contraception, pregnancy care, sex education, and much more. In addition, reproductive justice work breaks down all systems of oppression. Economic justice, environmental justice, immigrant justice, and criminal justice all relate to reproductive justice. An important issue that has gained attention recently is the treatment of women in prisons, most notably, forced sterilization. Incarcerated women are some of society’s most neglected individuals, and it is no surprise that their reproductive freedom has consistently been oppressed.
Sterilization has historically been used on single mothers, poor individuals, the disabled, and people of color. In the 1900s, about one-third of Puerto Rican women were sterilized, thanks to sterilization being free...and the only available birth control. Working women were forced to undergo sterilization in order to keep their jobs and source of income, as there were no opportunities for pregnant or parenting women. In 1942, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Skinner v. Oklahoma that Oklahoma's Criminal Sterilization Act, which allowed the state to sterilize person convicted of three or more crimes, was unconstitutional. However, in California, 150 incarcerated women were sterilized between 2006 and 2010. In our dear state of Louisiana in 2008, state representative John Labruzzo proposed a plan to pay low-income women $1,000 to have their tubes tied. In an ideal world, these events are examples of the past. But the cruel, blood-boiling reality is this: it’s still happening.
In 2017, there were 219,000 incarcerated women in the United States; about 10 % of them are in Louisiana jails and prisons and a majority are jailed without being convicted of a crime. Coupled with the fact that women of color and poor women are disproportionately represented in jails and prisons, the mistreatment of incarcerated women directly stifles these communities.
Last May, Tennessee Judge Sam Benningfield introduced a new program for prisoners in the White County Jail, offering to reduce their sentences if they agreed to be sterilized. Does that sound like a bribe? Coercion? Complete disregard for people’s bodily autonomy? Bingo - all of the above. Incarcerated women do not have the freedom to make choices, despite the “voluntary” nature of this program. Do incarcerated women need access to contraceptive methods? Absolutely. Do they need a doctor to administer the Nexplanon implant (a contraceptive method that prevents pregnancy up to 4 years) into their arm, in exchange for an earlier release date? Absolutely not. Those that know about birth control know how important it is to use a method that fits your personal needs. Choosing birth control can be a lengthy process, involving individual research and consultations with healthcare providers. Offering contraception to incarcerated women, as a general idea, seems like a great push for progress. But when an old white man is manipulating you into thinking that it is your “responsibility” to not have children - and lures you into the program with the promise of an earlier release date - that is wholly unethical.
In an interview, Benningfield stated: “I hope to encourage them to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not to be burdened with children. This gives them a chance to get on their feet and make something of themselves”. Benningfield has failed to consider that allowing women bodily autonomy is also a way to give them a chance to make something of themselves. Ensuring they have access to affordable housing and a living wage are pretty good ideas too.
The abuse of incarcerated women doesn’t stop with forced birth control. Other inappropriate attacks on reproductive freedom in the carceral system involve forced pregnancy tests, abortion denial, and lack of menstrual products (including forcing them to reuse old pads).
These issues demonstrate the gravity of the reproductive justice movement. Reproductive justice isn’t solely about being “pro-choice” or making abortion legal, but it strives to destroy the institutions and beliefs that strip us of our freedom. Without justice for incarcerated women, there is no choice. And without criminal justice and prison reform - there is no reproductive justice.
Is reproductive justice possible in a system that is made to oppress? How can you have control over your body when you are controlled by a set of bars?
By Aliyah Daniels
Aliyah is currently a senior at Tulane University pursuing a degree in Public Health
Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017. Prison Policy Initiative
REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH BEHIND BARS IN CALIFORNIA. A REPORT FROM THE ACLU OF CALIFORNIA, JAN 2016