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New Report Shows Women in Jail Face Barriers to Abortion

A new report reviews how jails in Illinois provide reproductive care and found that fewer than one-third of the state’s jails have written policies on abortions, according to the Marshall Project. The policies that exist are often vague and confusing and may include steep barriers, like requiring a person to make arrangements for or pay for the procedure themselves, even though they are locked up. A Marshall Project review of pregnancy policies in 27 jails across 12 states found similar patterns elsewhere, as did a recent study in Oregon. The studies suggest that even in places where abortion remains legal after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, reproductive rights in jail are precarious and limited. Carolyn Sufrin, an obstetrician-gynecologist and author of the 2017 book “Jailcare: Finding the Safety Net for Women Behind Bars,” said the stakes of access to abortion are especially high for incarcerated people because their access to nutritious food, good health care and support from friends and family are compromised.

Emily Werth, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and one of the new report’s authors, said the fact that so few jails provided written policies regarding abortion was troubling. Without clear guidance, staff can make decisions based on their personal beliefs instead of the wishes of a pregnant person. “If there are not written policies setting out these standards in the first place, we can and should assume that there will not be respect for legal obligations or best practices,” she said. One of the largest barriers to abortion access in jails is the requirement that patients pay for the abortion themselves. These rules make access arduous for people in jail, who are more likely to be poor. Besides restrictions instituted by jails, statewide laws limiting or banning abortions disproportionately affect incarcerated people. Amy Hagstrom Miller, founder of Whole Woman’s Health, which provides abortion care, said regulations like mandated waiting periods create a gantlet that can be especially difficult for people behind bars.


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