Protect the Abortion Rights of People in Prison Too

Advocates and government officials must add explicit protections for people seeking abortion services while incarcerated.

Members of Women’s Community Justice Association rally in defense of women incarcerated on Rikers Island jail on the steps of Federal Hall. Protesters held photographs of those affected by the prison system. (Lev Radin / Pacific Press / LightRocket via Getty Images)

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s devastating decision in Dobbs v. Jackson eliminated the federal right to abortion, abortion rights advocates and government officials alike have either passively forgotten or intentionally disregarded the health needs of 58,000 pregnant women entering jails and prisons every year, along with the almost 225,000 women and girls held in local jails, juvenile centers, state and federal prisons.

Many in the movement have emphasized the need for some to travel across state lines for abortions and reproductive health services. Advocates urge support for abortion funds—local groups that address the barriers that transportation, lodging, food and childcare expenses may pose. People have rebelled against the Court’s decision with their wallets, donating millions of dollars for “abortion refugees.” 

As critical as these actions are, however, the focus on travel assumes those in need of abortion services have the ability to access these funds—and at the very least, the liberty and physical freedom to travel to abortion safe haven states. Pregnant people in correctional facilities can’t do either of these things. 

Even within safe haven states, access to abortion services continues to be blocked for those in jails and prisons. A report by Diana Kasdan of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project highlights that in some locations, correctional facilities prohibit transporting people to abortion clinics unless authorized to do so by a court order.

Even if they navigate this legal red tape and obtain a court order, they must find the funds to cover the expenses themselves. Self-payment requirements pose a substantial barrier, given that abortion services average hundreds of dollars.

Women in prison also have to cover the additional fees for the vehicle and correctional officers’ time that facilities may charge. Many individuals are unable to cover these costs, and therefore unable to access abortion services while incarcerated. 

The consequences of inaccessible abortion services in carceral settings are catastrophic. Pregnant people in correctional facilities can be (and often are) forced to endure unwanted or life-threatening pregnancies with inadequate prenatal care. According to an ACLU review, most states do not require sufficient medical support and counseling for individuals who are pregnant and less than half of states banned shackling during labor and delivery

The harm in ignoring the challenges parents face in jails and prisons goes beyond facility walls—as we have proven through our publications and research. After childbirth, many experience parent-child separation and state interventions through the family policing system. Lack of abortion access and poor medical care cause more harm than good for children, parents and families.

Any discussion on the right to abortion services must include those who are isolated and unable to access reproductive resources due to incarceration. Too many challenges exist that warrant particular focus and resolution.

Advocates and government officials must add explicit protections for people seeking abortion services while incarcerated. Doing otherwise leaves hundreds of thousands of people behind on the march towards progress.

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U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

About and

Janet Garcia-Hallett has a Ph.D. in criminal justice and is an assistant professor in the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven. Her forthcoming book Invisible Mothers: Unseen Yet Hypervisible after Incarceration explores how mothers of color navigate motherhood after incarceration.
Carla Laroche is an associate clinical professor at Washington & Lee University School of Law. She has written and presented on the criminal legal system and reentry, race, gender, and families across the nation and internationally.