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Women Forced to Give Birth in Shackles

I heard a very disturbing story on NPR Friday night about the hidden practice of shackling incarcerated women during childbirth. It’s unclear how widespread the practice is, but over the years stories of shackling, cuffing and otherwise restraining women in labor have surfaced. And they bring up some interesting issues about labor and human rights.

Jennifer Farrar was shackled and cuffed in labor while doing time in Cook County for forgery.

She tells NPR, “The doctor and the nurse, they were telling the officer, is this necessary, you know? Where is she going to go? She’s in labor you know.”

The leg restraints were only removed when it was time to push, one of her arms remained cuffed to the bed. Farrar is one of over a hundred plaintiffs in a class action suit against Cook County, Illinois.

Gail Smith, executive director of the group Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, equates the shackling of laboring inmates with torture: “I think that there is a general attitude on the part of some people that they don’t deserve to be treated with full human rights, and I find that appalling.”

I couldn’t agree more. Being unnecessarily tethered to continuous monitoring and/or an IV is bad enough. But shackles!?  The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is, for the record, against shackling in labor. It has testified that physical restraints have “made the labor and delivery process more difficult than it needs to be; thus overall putting the health and lives of the women and unborn children at risk.” Ten states now have anti-shackling legislation.

Still, Malika Saada Saar of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, says that not enough thought has been put into how treatment for women should be different from that for men.  And this is where it gets crazy:

“A correctional officer working on a tier on the midnight shift, or any other shift, is not trained to know when a woman is in labor or not,” says Steve Patterson, spokesman for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. They can’t technically consider a woman in labor until  medical authority has deemed her thus.

Maybe my childbirth ed services could be put to use with prison wardens? I will look into it.

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