Abortion care almost impossible for women in US prison system

Women walk along a corridor at the Los Angeles County women's jail in Lynwood, California April 26, 2013. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Women walk along a corridor at the Los Angeles County women's jail in Lynwood, California April 26, 2013. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

What’s the context?

Women in jail, on probation or parole face fear and confusion over whether they can access abortion since Roe v Wade overturned

RICHMOND, Virginia - When U.S. lawyer Elizabeth Ling takes calls from women seeking legal advice about their abortion rights, the most challenging cases often come from people seeking to terminate their pregnancy while behind bars, on parole or probation.

In the two years since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade ruling that established abortion rights nationwide, the 'Repro Legal Helpline' has been inundated with calls from women struggling to navigate abortion bans and restrictions.

"The loss of the legal rights to abortion has increased people's overall fear and confusion when it comes to their reproductive lives," said Ling, who manages the helpline run by abortion rights legal group If/When/How, which typically receives up to 300 calls a month.

"People are trying to understand their legal rights and risk, which are unbelievably difficult to confirm even for a lawyer because of how quickly laws change," said Ling. "It can be so different based on where a person is physically; just across a state border can make all the difference."

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The helpline has responded to 5,361 calls since the landmark June 24, 2022 ruling that paved the way for more than a dozen states to enforce complete or near-total abortion bans.

An increasing number of calls are from pregnant women in jail, on parole, or on probation, and unsure about their legal rights and the potential risks if they have to travel across state lines to seek abortion care.

For these women, abortion care is often "entirely inaccessible," according to a June report by If/When/How.

For women who are under some kind of managed supervision – such as parole or probation – travel from a state with tight restrictions to one where they would have easier access can be fraught with risk.

The report highlighted the case of one woman caller seeking to terminate her pregnancy while on parole in a state where abortion is banned. She decided her only option was to "take a chance" and "deal with any consequences later" by breaking her parole terms and travelling 500 miles to get abortion care.

Another caller on parole and living in a state where abortion is a crime made a similar decision and travelled across state lines to end her unwanted pregnancy hoping that her parole officer would not find out.

"Sometimes the only choice is to travel to a different state, but they can't move freely. So, they must take a chance to talk to a parole officer who may be anti-abortion or be forced to take a real risk and move across state borders," said Ling, a co-author of the If/When/How report.

The helpline also received a call about a pregnant young woman in juvenile detention who wanted an abortion, but was denied one because of the "judge's anti-abortion stance".

Barriers and delays

There are about 200,000 women in U.S. prisons, jails, and other confinement facilities, and more than 800,000 on probation and parole.

It is estimated between 5% and 10% of women enter prison while pregnant.

Even before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, women who were incarcerated, on parole, or on probation faced additional barriers to care compared to the general population.

Several states did not allow incarcerated people to have abortions, and many others only allowed the procedure during the first trimester, according to Ling.

Excluding federal probation and post-release supervision, more than four-in-five women who are on probation or parole live in states with some kind of abortion ban and list travel restrictions as a standard condition of supervision, according to an analysis released this week by the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit research and advocacy group.

Even if women can make the request to travel out of state that sometimes requires a two-week notice, they might not do so, said Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist with the group.

"A supervised person is often not going to trust their officer," Bertram said.

Such fear and hesitancy can apply to those who are still behind bars as well.

"People in prison, a lot of the time – they don't even get as far as figuring out what their rights are because they're paranoid about being spied on, about being punished because of saying certain things or making certain requests," Bertram said.

For those on parole or probation, even when travel gets approved, any delay in getting it authorised could mean the difference between having a procedure that is legal and one that it is crime, depending on the state.

Any delays can also mean the difference between terminating a pregnancy by taking pills, or having surgery.

A woman on probation in South Carolina, for example, who only becomes aware of her pregnancy when she is eight weeks into her term would have to travel out-of-state for an abortion, the Prison Policy Initiative briefing said.

"But if it takes two weeks for her to get permission to travel, a non-surgical abortion is likely no longer an option, as the necessary medications are only approved for use until 10 weeks gestation," the brief noted.

For people behind bars, access to medical care, including abortion care, often comes down to the willingness of individual prison officers, whether prisons have the budget to transport people to appointments, and policies that differ across states.

Jails across nearly 100 counties in the midwestern state of Illinois do not have uniform, consistent policies regarding abortion and reproductive healthcare access, if they have guidelines at all, according to a study released in March by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois and the Women's Justice Institute, an advocacy group for incarcerated women based in Chicago.

"The most shocking findings were the number that didn't have any kind of written policies related to abortion access at all – suggesting, therefore, that they are totally unprepared for the possibility that someone in their custody might need to access an abortion," said Emily Werth, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Illinois and a co-author of the report.

Some county jails will charge women for the cost of getting an abortion and for transport and guards to take them to appointments - a cost many people in county jails cannot afford.

"That's an extremely significant barrier to access for most people who are incarcerated," Werth said.

(Reporting by Anastasia Moloney and David Sherfinski; Editing by Jon Hemming.)

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