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Arizona Prison Forcibly Induced Labor for Pregnant Prisoners

by Eike Blohm, MD

After a 2019 incident during which a prisoner gave birth in her cell – delivering a baby into the toilet while guards ignored her cries for help – Arizona’s Perryville Prison in Buckeye started inducing labor for pregnant prisoners.

Inducing labor involves intravenous administration of drugs that cause uterine contractions. These contractions can be more painful than those of spontaneous labor and carry a higher risk of soft tissue tears. NaphCare, the Alabama-based private firm that holds the contract to provide healthcare for the state Department of Corrections (DOC), told the Arizona Republic it had no such policy. So this apparently happened before DOC dropped its former private healthcare contractor, Centurion, at the end of September 2022. [See: PLN, Dec. 2022, p.1]

An investigation by the news outlet revealed that three women were induced against their will at Perryville. While the procedure is generally safe for mother and baby at full term – typically 40 weeks – doing so before 38 weeks is reserved for high-risk pregnancies, such as when a woman suffers from diabetes or pre-eclampsia. Yet two of the deliveries at Perryville were induced at 37 weeks, both in the absence of medical indications.

The state passed its Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act in 2021, which bans shackles during birth and allows an imprisoned mother to spend at least 72 hours with her newborn. But apparently it does not protect against forced inductions.

That may reflect the simple fact that inducing labor allows the prison to schedule childbirth at the most convenient time for the system – perhaps certain times when staffing models allow for a hospital trip. It also avoids a repeat of the horrible 2019 incident. In fact, there may be prisoners who wish to be induced for fear they might otherwise deliver in their cells without any anesthesia.

Meanwhile the state continues to punish women for their sex, prisoners say, denying them breast pads post-partum, providing nothing more for a pre-natal diet than an extra serving of milk every day. Two imprisoned new mothers said that DOC billed them for labor services.

But forcing women to induce labor violates the bodily autonomy of prisoners. Except when ordered by a court, no prisoner can be forced to take medication against her will, even if it’s relatively safe. In the same way, some women prefer to give birth naturally when their body and the baby determine it is time, not when it best suits prison staffing needs.

“It’s another example of how medical practices are dictated by the lack of health care and custody staff,” offered American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project attorney Corene Kendrick. “If they had enough nurses and custody officers on-site 24/7, they could implement best practices.”

As state prisoner Stephanie Pearson argued, “Just because I made some bad choices in my life, they shouldn’t be allowed to make bad health choices for me and my baby.” 

Source: Arizona Republic, Reason