AMA Opposes Shackling Pregnant Women in Labor

Rachel Roth

The American Medical Association takes a stand against shackling pregnant women in labor.

The American Medical Association (AMA) has adopted a resolution opposing the shackling of pregnant women in labor, according to the web site MedPage Today.


Describing the practice of shackling women in labor as “barbaric” and “medically hazardous,” the AMA joins a growing group of health, women’s rights, reproductive justice, and human rights organizations calling for its end. Shackling women in labor is “dehumanizing” and “runs counter to our values,” explained AMA delegate and obstetrician Erin Tracy.


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The AMA is the largest physician organization in the United States and has members from specialties across the field of medicine. The AMA resolution, adopted by the House of Delegates at the annual meeting, calls on the organization to develop model legislation that could be adopted by states.


To date, nine states have enacted laws of varying scope to restrict the shackling of pregnant women. These laws limit or prohibit shackling during labor, childbirth, and postpartum recovery, and some restrict the use and/or type of restraints that can be applied at earlier stages of pregnancy.


Illinois adopted the first such law in 2000, followed by California and Vermont in 2005. In the last two years alone, New Mexico, Texas, New York, Washington, West Virginia, and Colorado have passed laws against shackling women in labor, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service have issued policies against shackling women in labor.


A bill pending in Pennsylvania could still be enacted this year, and activists are pressing the issue in other jurisdictions as well, such as Georgia.


In addition to lobbying legislatures, women are pursuing redress through the courts. Women who have been subjected to shackling describe it as painful, humiliating – and unconstitutional. This argument has been successful in two recent cases. The federal Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit held in a case from Arkansas that shackling a woman in labor violated her rights, and a federal judge in Washington reached the same conclusion, leading the state Department of Corrections to settle with a woman who had brought a lawsuit against it.


One common thread throughout the various campaigns has been the powerful impact of women telling their stories. From the meetings in legislators’ offices in Illinois that led to the first ban on shackling in 2000, to the committee hearings and media interviews of 2010, women have described in vivid terms what it felt like to be shackled as they labored to give birth – and even as they gave birth – to their children. They have also recounted the lasting effects of shackling on their health, their psyches, and their memories of how their children came into the world. Their testimony requires great courage in a world where having spent time in prison carries so much stigma, and is a critical contribution to the campaign for decent treatment of people in prison.

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