Last year I spent a little over 8 months working as a medical assistant at a women’s clinic in California. The job was difficult but it was rewarding as well. My favorite part about it was connecting with my patients, especially helping them through some of their toughest moments. Often these patients stayed with me even after I left for the day.
One woman, in particular, made a big impact on me. She was incarcerated and was in our clinic, accompanied by prison guards, in order to obtain an abortion. What I assumed would be a straightforward appointment soon became complicated. We faced major pushback from the prison medical staff.
In the end, the doctor at our clinic had to argue on the phone until the prison physician gave in. This was when I first realized the vast difficulties that incarcerated people face when it comes to abortion access.
Pregnancy in prison
A large number of people who enter the prison system in the U.S. are pregnant. Additionally, some become pregnant during their sentence due to sexual assault. A study conducted by John Hopkins Medicine showed that, in a sample of prisons that held 57 percent of incarcerated women, almost 1,400 of them were pregnant at intake.
Furthermore, out of those pregnancies, only 11 of them resulted in an abortion. Although legally incarcerated people have a right to an abortion, they often face many obstacles that make it difficult for them to actually receive abortion services.
Financial barriers to abortions
One of the biggest difficulties people in prison face is paying for their abortion. Abortions can be expensive, and without health insurance can cost up to $1,000. Although both federal and state courts have continually upheld the fact that incarcerated people have a constitutional right to abortions, prisons themselves do not offer abortion services. This means that in order to obtain an abortion, inmates must travel to off-site clinics. These travel costs, the cost of the abortion itself, and staff time are all the responsibility of the inmates. In many cases, people do not have the funds to cover all of these fees.
An overwhelming number of incarcerated people have experienced/are experiencing poverty and systemic racism, both of which shape their financial standing. This means that many inmates do not have the funds needed to pay for their abortion. In these cases, turning towards federal funding is not an option. This is due to a piece of legislation called the Hyde Amendment, which bans the federal funding of abortions.
Therefore, many inmates cannot afford their own abortion unless they get the help of private donations. There are organizations, like the National Network Of Abortion Funds, that help people pay for their abortions. However, getting access to these funds can be difficult. A large portion of inmates isn’t aware that these funds exist. Even if they are, the process of accessing such funds can be delayed and discouraged by prison staff.
Manipulation from prison staff
The prison system revolves around policing and controlling people’s bodies. Therefore, it is no surprise that incarcerated pregnant people face a severe lack of choice when it comes to their pregnancies. Often prison guards and medical staff make it extremely difficult or impossible for inmates to access abortion services. Even the simple act of delaying a person’s ability to access an abortion or funds for one can be detrimental due to the time-sensitive manner of pregnancies. Additionally, prisoners might not even know that they have a right to an abortion, and prison staff may not explicitly tell them that they do.
A broken system
It is important to remember that this systemic problem is just one of the many issues involved in the prison healthcare system. Abortions are crucial healthcare services that all people should have access to, whether they are behind bars or not. It is equally important that other basic needs of prisoners are met, such as access to menstrual products and annual exams. However, being incarcerated often limits people’s access to essential products and services like these.
In order to address the systematic disregard and disrespect that incarcerated people face, we must look at how broken the criminal justice system is. Mass incarceration creates vast inequalities and perpetuates poverty and discrimination, both of which keep people (predominately people of color) trapped in the prison system. Furthermore, criminal justice rights and reproductive rights are linked.
Being incarcerated should not equate to a lack of choice or a decline in quality of care. Incarcerated people deserve dignity, access to essential services, and the right to choose the outcomes of their pregnancies.
You can donate to https://abortionfunds.org/ to help people, both incarcerated and not, fund their abortions.