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Reproductive INjustice: Immigration, Birthing, and the Prison System

by Mia Giardina, PEP Young Women's Leadership Council

In the fall of 2009, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio forced Alma Minerva Chacon, who was detained while 9 months pregnant, to give birth in shackles. At one point during her birth, a nurse begged Sheriff Arpaio to unshackle Chacon so that they could run a urinalysis on her, but he would not even allow this. Chacon was never allowed to hold her infant, and was told that if no one claimed her child within 72 hours her newborn would be in state custody.  As immigration becomes increasingly criminalized in the United States and undocumented immigrant women face greater threats of incarceration and state violence, undocumented mothers lose control over their births and bodies.

In a similarly harrowing story of reproductive injustice, Maria, a detained immigrant woman from Honduras, was raped, and requested an abortion because "the baby's face will just remind me of him- the man who did this."  She was denied an abortion while incarcerated. At ten months pregnant, Maria was deported to Honduras.

Maria's story is not uncommon - the denial of abortion access to detained immigrant women is rampant. From 2008 to 2009, no women detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) received abortions, even though approximately ten percent of detained women are pregnant at any given time.

Up until a decade ago, detained pregnant women were released and asked to return for their deportation hearings. But as a result of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, pregnant women now spend their entire waits incarcerated. While incarcerated, immigrant women receive grossly sub par prenatal care, sometimes not even receiving prenatal vitamins. Then, right before their due dates, ICE often releases pregnant women leaving them with no birthing options. Maria, who was deported after her request for an abortion was denied, had no choice but to go to an unlicensed abortion provider in Honduras.

We must stop, not only the systemic reproductive injustice inflicted upon detained immigrant women, but the increasing rates at which immigrant women are detained and the increasing lengths of their incarceration.

Immigrant women are often imprisoned in jails that shackle women in labor. 46 states in this country have no laws prohibiting the shackling of pregnant women in prison! Detained immigrant women face reproductive injustice from the moment of conception until they are forcibly separated from their newborns after birth and then denied the right to raise their families.

These examples of reproductive injustice fall within a larger context in the United States where low-income women of color are denied control over their bodies and reproductive rights while pregnant. Approximately 81 percent of court-ordered c-sections are for low-income women of color. Recently, the birthing center at Bellevue hospital, one of the country's only birthing centers that accepted Medicaid, closed.  Over 85 percent of women who have used the Bellevue birthing center are Chinese or Spanish speaking immigrants.

We need to stop the inhumane shackling of all women during birth and fight the systemic reproductive injustices affecting pregnant immigrant women and low-income women of color. Detained immigrant women are more vulnerable to state violence, and because of this, face constant threats to their bodies, choices, and health. As part of movements against incarceration, against detainment of undocumented immigrants and against the reproductive oppression of women of color - we need to fight against the horrendous violence being inflicted upon detained immigrant women!

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February 2010 E-Newsletter
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