a bird and a bottle

The Worlds Collide: Birth Attendants

pregnant prison

At the National Advocates for Pregnant Women conference in January, I met a few women who work with an organization called Birth Attendants. I was inspired and meant to blog about them. Their work bridges the two major interests of this blog (and by extension, of mine): reproductive health and the criminal justice system. But of course in the flurry of news this winter and the slog of law school, I forgot.

Which is why I was thrilled to see that Radical Doula reminded me with her own post about them.

The Birth Attendants are a group of doulas who work with women who give birth while incarcerated. An estimated 4-9% of women who enter prison are pregnant at the time of their incarceration, which means that there are hundreds or thousands of births in U.S. prisons each year. In many states, those women give birth in shackles, which is not only inhumane, but also poses significant health risks to women and their babies.

The Birth Attendants fight against this through both community education and through assisting in-prison births in Washington (state). They provide prenatal, labor, and postpartum support to women who are incarcerated. Women who otherwise might give birth in squalid conditions and in an environment totally lacking in support and encouragement. Their community education classes teach the wider Washington community about incarceration’s effects on families and communities.

It’s amazing that this organization is doing such vital work. But in addition to just praising the Birth Attendants (which I am happy to do), their work (and this post) should highlight the the abominable conditions of confinement for pregnant and birthing women who are incarcerated. This is an issue that bridges the right-left “pro-life” vs. pro-repro-rights debate. For the pro-lifers, there’s the concern about protecting fetal and infant health (screw the women). For those of us concerned with reproductive health, it’s a no brainer.


3 Comments so far
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Thanks Bean for writing more about this super important and very under-investigated issue. Prisoners are also shackled during all types of medical care, and the women who give birth are required to have a prison guard with them at all times. What happens if the guard and the woman have a bad relationship? Or an abusive one?

The doulas who work for the Prison Doula project are inspirational–that they are able to keep working in those environments, and try and support these women who are so alone. Working in a hospital is difficult enough, without these issues of abuse and mistreatment.

Comment by radicaldoula

RadicalDoula – great point about the shackling of incarcerated women being more widespread than labor alone. As you probably know, the shackling of incarcerated women OR men violates international human rights law (unless required to prevent escape).

The shackling of women continues after birth, too — women are often shackled when first holding their children or when trying to breastfeed.

Comment by bean

This is outrageous. Thanks, bean, for bringing it to my attention. I just looked on their websites, and for anyone interested, it’s easy to donate online.

Comment by tme

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