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Protection of the Rights of Pregnant Women in Prisons and Detention Facilities

NCJ Number
New England Journal on Prison Law Volume: 6 Issue: 2 Dated: (Summer 1980) Pages: 231-263
G A McHugh
Date Published
33 pages
Problems faced by pregnant women in prisons, legal issues raised by their treatment, and possible means of protecting the rights of pregnant prisoners are discussed.
Problems of women prisoners, particularly those who are pregnant, have not been a focus for prison litigation or reform. Their situation has been overlooked in the prison movement because women prisoners are relatively few in number, are generally less militant than their male counterparts, and allegedly do not suffer the same brutality as male prisoners. Legally, a woman's right to care for pregnancy is arguably stronger than her right to medical care in general because it involves the fundamental right of procreation. The most shocking abuse of pregnant women and the most serious invasion of their rights, as reflected by the 1974 case of 'Morales v. Turman,' is coercion from prison officials to abort. There is substantial evidence that pregnant women in prison are sometimes special targets for harassment from prison staff members. Also, medical care rendered in prisons is generally inadequate, and the care of pregnant women is no exception to the rule. Prison diets are typically high in starches and low in protein and vitamins. Special problems involve pregnant women who are drug addicts and those who are given tranquilizing or mood elevating drugs as a means of controlling behavior. Standards pertaining to the treatment of prisoners are vague regarding the care of pregnant women. Mistreatment of pregnant prisoners may constitute cruel and unusual punishment if it involves indifference to serious medical needs, if it is incompatible with evolving standards of decency, or if it involves the unnecessary infliction of pain. The ideal solution to these unique problems would be to approach the care of pregnant offenders as an issue of social policy, requiring establishment of alternatives to imprisonment via legislation. Increased use of probation, furlough, and temporary parole offer immediate workable solutions. Footnotes with references are included.