Mothering as a Reproductive Right

Malika Saada Saar

Where is the reproductive rights community in the over-incarceration of mothers and the almost systematic severance in the mother and child relationship as a result of maternal incarceration?

For the first time in the history of U.S. prisons, there are growing and unprecedented numbers of mothers behind bars. They are not drug kingpins, murderers, arsonists, or violent felons. They are non-violent offenders.

Since 1986, following the introduction of mandatory sentencing to the federal drug laws in the mid-1980s, and its adoption by many states at about the same time, the number of women in prison has risen 400 percent, according to a recent Department of Justice report, "Survey of State Prison Inmates;" for Black women, the figure is 800 percent. Most are mothers to minor children.

Many of these mothers are suffering from untreated addiction, and too many tried to find help but were turned away from the doors of treatment programs because they were pregnant or refused to leave their children behind (most treatment programs do not allow children to be part of the recovery process). Like most mothers struggling with addiction, their addiction to crack, meth, or heroin began with the need to self-medicate from the trauma of being subject to repeated incidents of sexual violence.

What does it mean then that most of our female prison population comprises mothers, and mothers with histories of sexual violence and addiction? How is it that our approach to maternal addiction and the trauma of gendered violence is circumscribed to criminalization and to the removal of children from their mothers? What are the implications for our children of being removed from their mothers, often at birth, because of the criminalization of mothers for untreated addiction? Where is the reproductive rights community in the overincarceration of mothers and the almost systematic severance in the mother and child relationship as a result of maternal incarceration?

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These difficult questions regarding maternal addiction and incarceration are often allayed by constructing the women as unfit to mother, or casting them outside the magic circle of motherhood and the sacred mother-child bond. Nonetheless, generally, mothers suffering from addiction want to be good mothers, and their children want to be with them. Hence, when mothers are afforded access to family-based treatment services where they can heal with their children, their average success rates are 62% and rise as high 98% in model family treatment programs. The family heals, stabilizes, and thrives together as a whole family unit. Alternatively, when children are separated from their mothers, they are vulnerable to attachment disorder, substance abuse, and involvement in the criminal justice system. The child welfare system is laced with painful stories of children running away from their foster care placements to be with their mothers, or police being called by child welfare workers in order to physically remove children, sometimes through handcuffing them, from their mothers.

The difficult realities of mothers and children being torn apart from one another are especially traumatic in the context of maternal incarceration. Children are rarely able to visit their mothers behind bars since most female correctional facilities are located in isolated areas and kinship caregivers are unable to travel the distance, or child welfare workers are unwilling to make the strenuous journey. The children who are able to visit their mothers are often subject to excessive body searches and denied the chance to even touch their mothers during the visit.

The condition of mothers giving birth behind bars is equally difficult. Babies are removed from their mothers within a 24 hour period after their birth and placed into foster care. Babies born to mothers behind bars are often born to mothers who labored and gave birth to them while in shackles. In our federal prisons and most state prisons, restraints are routinely used on pregnant women when they are in labor and when they give birth. Only 2 states have legislation regulating the use of restraints on pregnant women: Illinois and California. In the other 48 other states, the District of Columbia and the Federal Bureau of Prisoners, no such laws exist. This routine use of restraints on pregnant women, particularly on women in labor and giving birth, constitutes a cruel, inhumane and degrading practice that rarely can be justified in terms of security concerns during the delivery process.

It shouldn't be this way.

Mothers and their children should have access to family-based treatment programs; alternative sentencing to therapeutic, family programs should be considered instead of maternal incarceration; and sentencing reform that recognizes the distinct conditions and responsibilities of mothers as the primary caretakers should displace the gender neutral sentencing guidelines that are, in part, responsible for the surge in mothers behind bars.

Our reproductive rights community has yet to be a voice for mothers behind bars, or a voice against the disproportional removal of vulnerable children from the care of their mothers. Whereas our mainstream reproductive movement has addressed women's right to choose what happens to our bodies and our right to choose when to be a mother, low-income women of color are routinely denied the basic right to be mothers. The parameters of reproductive health and rights discourse must be expanded to also include the very right to mother and to raise one's children with dignity and healing. Otherwise, we are in danger of playing out what we correctly criticize the pro-life community for doing — only demonstrating concern for the fetus.

Commentary Politics

Democrats’ Latest Platform Silent on Discriminatory Welfare System

Lauren Rankin

The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.

But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.

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In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.

Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.

TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.

At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.

TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.

That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.

There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.

Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child. 

Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.

TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.

The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.

TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.

As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.

Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.

The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.

While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.

It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.

Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.

Commentary Politics

In Mike Pence, Trump Would Find a Fellow Huckster

Jodi Jacobson

If Donald Trump is looking for someone who, like himself, has problems with the truth, isn't inclined to rely on facts, has little to no concern for the health and welfare of the poorest, doesn't understand health care, and bases his decisions on discriminatory beliefs, then Pence is his guy.

This week, GOP presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump is considering Mike Pence, among other possible contenders, to join his ticket as a vice presidential candidate.

In doing so, Trump would pick the “pro-life” governor of a state with one of the slowest rates of economic growth in the nation, and one of the most egregious records on public health, infant and child survival, and poverty in the country. He also would be choosing one of the GOP governors who has spent more time focused on policies to discriminate against women and girls, LGBTQ communities, and the poor than on addressing economic and health challenges in his state. Meanwhile, despite the evidence, Pence is a governor who seems to be perpetually in denial about the effects of his policies.

Let’s take the economy. From 2014 to 2015, Indiana’s economic growth lagged behind all but seven other states in the nation. During that period, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Indiana’s economy grew by just 0.4 percent, one-third the rate of growth in Illinois and slower than the economies of 43 other states. Per capita gross domestic product in the state ranked 37th among all states.

Income inequality has been a growing problem in the state. As the Indy Star reported, a 2014 report by the United States Conference of Mayors titled “Income and Wage Gaps Across the US” stated that “wage inequality grew twice as rapidly in the Indianapolis metro area as in the rest of the nation since the recession,” largely due to the fact “that jobs recovered in the U.S. since 2008 pay $14,000 less on average than the 8.7 million jobs lost since then.” In a letter to the editor of the Indy Star, Derek Thomas, senior policy analyst for the Indiana Institute for Working Families, cited findings from the Work and Poverty in Marion County report, which found that four out of five of the fastest-growing industries in the county pay at or below a self-sufficient wage for a family of three, and weekly wages had actually declined. “Each year that poverty increases, economic mobility—already a real challenge in Indy—becomes more of a statistical oddity for the affected families and future generations.”

In his letter, Thomas also pointed out:

[T]he minimum wage is less than half of what it takes for a single-mother with an infant to be economically self-sufficient; 47 percent of workers do not have access to a paid sick day from work; and 32 percent are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines ($29,685 for a family of three).

Despite the data and the struggles faced by real people across the state, Pence has consistently claimed the economy of the state is “booming,” and that the state “is strong and growing stronger,” according to the Northwest Indiana Times. When presented with data from various agencies, his spokespeople have dismissed them as “erroneous.” Not exactly a compelling rebuttal.

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As a “pro-life” governor, Pence presides over a state with one of the worst infant mortality rates in the nation. Data from the Indiana State Department of Health reveals a “significant disparity” between white and Black infant mortality rates, with Black infants 1.8 times more likely to die than their white counterparts. The 2013 Infant Mortality Summit also revealed that “[a]lmost one-third of pregnant women in Indiana don’t receive prenatal care in their first trimester; almost 17% of pregnant women are smokers, compared to the national rate of 9%; and the state ranks 8th in the number of obese citizens.”

Yet even while he bemoaned the situation, Pence presided over budget cuts to programs that support the health and well-being of pregnant women and infants. Under Pence, 65,000 people have been threatened with the loss of  food stamp benefits which, meager as they already are, are necessary to sustain the caloric and nutritional intake of families and children.

While he does not appear to be effectively managing the economy, Pence has shown a great proclivity to distract from real issues by focusing on passing laws and policies that discriminate against women and LGBTQ persons.

He has, for example, eagerly signed laws aimed at criminalizing abortion, forcing women to undergo unnecessary ultrasounds, banning coverage for abortion care in private insurance plans, and forcing doctors performing abortions to seek admitting privileges at hospitals (a requirement the Supreme Court recently struck down as medically unnecessary in the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case). He signed a “religious freedom” law that would have legalized discrimination against LGBTQ persons and only “amended” it after a national outcry. Because Pence has guided public health policy based on his “conservative values,” rather than on evidence and best practices in public health, he presided over one of the fastest growing outbreaks of HIV infection in rural areas in the United States.

These facts are no surprise given that, as a U.S. Congressman, Pence “waged war” on Planned Parenthood. In 2000, he stated that Congress should oppose any effort to recognize homosexuals and advocated that funding for HIV prevention should be directed toward conversion therapy programs.

He also appears to share Trump’s hatred of and willingness to scapegoat immigrants and refugees. Pence was the first governor to refuse to allow Syrian refugees to relocate in his state. On November 16th 2015, he directed “all state agencies to suspend the resettlement of additional Syrian refugees in the state of Indiana,” sending a young family that had waited four years in refugee limbo to be resettled in the United States scrambling for another state to call home. That’s a pro-life position for you. To top it all off, Pence is a creationist, and is a climate change denier.

So if Donald Trump is looking for someone who, like himself, has problems with the truth, isn’t inclined to rely on facts, has little to no concern for the health and welfare of the poorest, doesn’t understand health care, and bases his decisions on discriminatory beliefs, then Pence is his guy.