Analysis Abortion

What’s the Answer to Abortion in the Age of the Prison-Industrial Complex? Lock Women Up and Throw Away the Key

Farah Diaz-Tello

Women were once seen as "second victims" of abortion. Now, as women face murder trials for unintended pregnancy losses, they're potential fodder for a prison system that is steadily becoming one of the biggest businesses in the country.

A mini-documentary on YouTube from 2007 has recently gotten a new lease on life. The filmmaker asks protesters outside of a women’s health clinic in Libertyville, Illinois whether they think abortion should be illegal. They do. What should the penalties be, he asks? What happens next is fascinating: they fumble.

Anna Quindlen, writing for Newsweek in 2007, noted that “the doctrinaire suddenly turn squirrelly at the prospect of throwing women in jail.” Some say they would just pray for the woman. Some grasp at quasi-legal reasoning, saying the woman should be punished based on her level of awareness that she was “killing her child.”

The inconsistency isn’t isolated to clinic protestors. Remember Herman Cain’s incoherent position on abortion? “I believe that life begins at conception. And abortion under no circumstances.” And then moments later: “[I]t comes down to it’s not the government’s role or anybody else’s role to make that decision. …  So what I’m saying is it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make.” He later clarified that he was referring to an individual family’s decision about abortion, not “the whole big issue” of abortion. He was not talking about women’s access to health care, he was talking about his family’s choice. That’s different.

Cain’s thinking reflects the bad-old-days before Roe v. Wade, when illegal abortion was a misdemeanor reserved for the women who couldn’t afford a flight to California or Mexico. Sure, women died inflicting all manner of horrors upon themselves in desperate attempts to end pregnancies. But daughters of millionaires could quietly leave town and get things “taken care of.”

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But that was then, this is now.

What we have now, as Katha Pollitt explains, is a concerted movement to redefine personhood to include fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses “in so many parts of the law that when the Supreme Court finally revisits Roe v. Wade, a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy will look like a bizarre exception.” In the intervening decades since Roe, 38 states have passed laws that create a crime for causing the death of a fetus (feticide or fetal homicide), at least 23 of which apply at the earliest stages of pregnancy.

What we have now is a what Professor Angela Davis calls a “prison industrial complex”: a system of for-profit prisons so hungry for more inmates that it drives immigration policy, and pays off judges to fill jail cells with children. A system so bloated that rural economies have become dependent upon the influx of inmates, mostly young black and Latino men. We’ve lost our belief that women are too delicate, vulnerable, or necessary to family life to incarcerate: since the 1970s, the rate of incarceration for women has increased over 700%.

We have lawmakers admit that they believe that women should face “serious” criminal penalties for having abortions.  We have so dismantled the right to privacy that state-mandated technological surveillance can literally invade women’s bodies.  We have Kafkaesque bedside interrogations and arrests of women who fall down stairs when they admit ambivalence about young single motherhood.

It is not hard to see which way the wind is blowing. Indeed, this has been a long time coming. Writing in 2006, National Advocates for Pregnant Women‘s Executive Director Lynn Paltrow observed:

[I]t’s worth remembering that much has changed since 1973, long before states began declaring that zygotes are full persons under the law and before the US became the country with the largest prison population and the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

Fast forward to the present day, NAPW is helping to represent two women who are facing murder trials for losing pregnancies. Bei Bei Shuai spent over a year in an Indiana jail when her friends rescued her from a suicide attempt during pregnancy, but doctors were unable to save her baby’s life. Rennie Gibbs, the odds of a healthy pregnancy outcome already stacked against her due to her youth, race, poverty, and state of residence, suffered a miscarriage and is being tried for “depraved heart” murder in Mississippi. If women are being prosecuted for murder for unintentional pregnancy losses, we can expect no less for women who seek abortions. In fact, women are already being arrested for having abortions. While right-to-life groups claim that they see women as “second victims” of abortion rather than perpetrators, just this week, a deputy Attorney General from Idaho defended the state’s right to arrest Jennie McCormack, a woman who terminated a pregnancy using misoprostol obtained through the internet (audio of Ninth Circuit oral argument).

Make no mistake: the criminalization of abortion will send women to jail. Groups around the country are hard at work to ensure that if abortion becomes a crime again, it will become the crime of murder. For better or for worse, there is no going back to the days when clinic protesters weren’t sure what to do with women. The answer from organizations seeking to re-criminalize abortion is now is loud and clear: lock them up for a very long time.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.