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Pregnant Inmates Chained During Labor: On the Dignity of Childbirth
Wed, 04/13/2011 - 20:00
Special to the Jewish Week
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

Childbirth is one of the most sacred events of the human experience. All women deserve the dignity to give birth free of danger, restraint, or oppression. Unfortunately, this is not the case in America for inmates who are forced to go through labor in shackles - not metaphorical shackles; real ones.

More horrifying still, some of these detainees are pregnant as a result of rape, forced to endure shackling as rape survivors. Of course, there is also the welfare of a newborn child to consider: Around 2,000 babies are born to American prisoners each year, and according to the Women's Prison Association, women are the fastest growing demographic in U.S. prisons.

Corrections departments in twenty-three states, in addition to the federal Bureau of Prisons, allow for restraints during labor. In only five states do corrections departments prohibit this practice; the remaining states do not have laws or formal policies. In 2000, Illinois enacted the first law forbidding some restraints during labor.

During labor, some women are shackled around the waist, while others are subjected to a black box placed between their wrists and belly to keep their arms in front. Yet others are shackled around the ankles while in transport vans or wheelchairs, while breastfeeding, and while in neonatal nurseries.

Many of those shackled during childbirth are given nothing but Tylenol to ease the pain. The experience of giving birth, immobile, without anesthesia, can leave prisoners with mental anguish, lasting back pain and permanent nerve damage.

How can we allow for a punitive justice system that strips Americans of their most basic decencies? Rebbe Yehuda argued that if a woman so much as urinates before the carrying out of her punishment, since she may not be shamed in this process, she is exempt from punishment (Mishnah Makkot 3:14). Being strapped in shackles while giving birth certainly would not pass muster with the rabbis.

In the Jewish tradition, a mother recites Birkat haGomel (a blessing of thanksgiving) after giving birth, because of the mortal danger involved in a normal birthing experience. This danger, and the ruling that women recite this blessing, pertains to a typical case of childbirth, without the added threat of being bound by chains. The Rabbis were sensitive to the extremity of the birthing event.

While a prisoner may lose relative social dignity and rights after breaking the law, he or she must never lose his or her absolute, undeniable human dignity and rights. The right to give birth without an added tortuous pain must be made absolute for all women.

There are many issues in prison reform that we can all consider advocating to change, but this is one that we must unite behind to ensure a swift reversal of policy. We are fighting not only for basic human rights but also for the holiness of the first mitzvah of the Torah itself, childbirth. An act of giving birth is nothing less than the paradigmatic partnership with G-d, a Partner not to be welcomed through chains!

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA Hillel and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. To read more Street Torah, click here.  


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While I understand that you (the writer) want to show the troubling conditions that American inmates are in, what i fail to see in your articles is an alternative. The criminals in question have largely proven that they can not function as a law abiding citizen (either religious or secular law) and pose a threat to those of us who are. Further, the hostile and barbaric conditions that exist in prisons are largely due to the actions of the prisoners themselves, not the system.

I don't have a solution. I wish I did; but for now I want to make sure that the murderers, weapon carrying drug dealers and gang-bangers, rapists, and child molesters stay away from those of us who carry on decent law-abiding lives. What would you have us do differently?

The answer is that person who breaks the law understands that if they are caught and receive a prison sentence they will be stripped of many of their rights. That is what punishment is all about. Millions of women give birth in Africa every year without even the benefit of Tylenol. Stop spoiling convicted criminals by suggesting they have the same rights as others; they don't

A reply to the last writer - one loses their Tzelim Elokim when they commit a crime? What is your source for the idea that one loses their basic human rights and dignity when they do a wrong? The halachah is that its assur to block someone's teshuva and not enable their growth.

So is there any organization out there that is working to change this. I have to say I am shocked and physically ill that this kind of thing happens in our own country and worse, that no one is really aware of it. I have had five kids, each one with an epidural at some point in the labor- I just can't imagine...

Yes, there are groups trying to change this, and bills have been introduced in 10-20 states this year, following a number of successful state campaigns in 2010. Currently, 11 states have laws to limit the shackling of pregnant women, and just this week a federal court in Tennessee ruled that such shackling is unconstitutional. You can contact the Rebecca Project for Human Rights in D.C. for info on your state, or contact your local ACLU to see what they're doing. You can also read more about the subject by searching for articles at the web site RH Reality Check. This is a good time to get involved!