Courts Rein in Wild West Sheriff

Rachel Roth

An Arizona state court ruled that a county sheriff's unwritten policy refusing to provide transportation to female prisoners seeking an abortion violated women's rights. Last week the U.S. Supreme Court let the decision stand.

Imagine finding out the day before your sentencing hearing that you are pregnant.

Imagine that you are nineteen years old and looking at four months in jail and two years of probation, and dread the thought of having a baby under those circumstances.

Imagine that you ask if you can stay out of jail just long enough to terminate your pregnancy, but the prosecutor says no, and assures you that you will be able to do so when you are in jail.

Then reality sets in: you are in Maricopa County, Arizona, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio likes to brag that he is the "toughest sheriff" in America, and he doesn't particularly support access to abortion.

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It takes weeks to try to figure out what you have to do to get the jail to take you to an appointment with a clinic, even though the clinic is nearby, since Phoenix is a major urban center.

You are lucky to have your parents' support, and, at least at first, the assistance of a public defender. Ultimately it takes what it so often takes – the representation of the ACLU to make it possible to exercise your rights. By this time, it has been almost two months since the prosecutor gave his assurances that you could have an abortion.

What happened here?

The jail had an unwritten policy that required women to obtain a court order authorizing transportation for an abortion. The jail regularly transported people to medical appointments without a judge's order, and also transported people to non-medical appointments, such as funerals, without any kind of court involvement. However, the sheriff singled out abortion for bureaucratic hurdles. Arpaio has said that he doesn't run a "taxi service" to abortion clinics, and that "government money" shouldn't be paying for "elective surgery" (like "nose jobs") – even indirectly through transportation.

After her ordeal, "Jane Doe" pursued a lawsuit against the sheriff to ensure that women in the future would not have to go through what she did. The Arizona state courts agreed with her and the ACLU that the sheriff's unwritten policy violated women's rights. On March 24, 2008, the United States Supreme Court let the decision in Doe's favor stand.

A local commentator observed that if "government money" were the issue, surely it would have been cheaper to drive Doe to the clinic – where she paid for an abortion with her family's money – than to spend years in costly litigation. But the real value of the case was to get four years of free publicity, something the sheriff has always courted.

The Supreme Court's action should be the final chapter in this case. And yet the sheriff gave the public something to think about when he told The Arizona Republic: "I'm disappointed. We fought the good fight. I still don't agree that we should take females on a voluntary basis to an abortion. I'm still against that. But we took it to the highest court, and we'll see what happens if the situation comes before me again in the jail system" (emphasis added). Arpaio may have been talking "tough" to keep up his image. But his comments serve as a stark reminder that it takes vigilance to protect reproductive rights, especially the rights of the least politically powerful women.

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