Tag Archives: race

The Ties that Bind: It’s Time to End Shackling

4 Jun

By: Catrina Otonoga

They’ve been saying that love has made its way to PA this week. They’ve been saying that equality for all has worked its way down the winding East Coast and is on the brink of the South and Midwest. Love. Equality.

But what has gotten washed away in the seas of good tidings for the state of Virtue, Liberty, and Independence, is a woman tripping and falling face first onto her pregnant belly because of shackles around her legs and waist. She could not protect herself or her fetus because her hands were cuffed behind her back.

What has gotten lost amid tales of happy couples finally getting to share their love is a woman in labor, her ankles shackled to her hospital bed rubbing her skin raw until scars are left, her legs unable to fully open so she can birth her child. Lost is the story of her child being born into a set of shackles, years after the state has banned the practice of shackling.

Shackling is the act of restraining pregnant incarcerated women by chains that link their wrists, ankles, and their bellies. These shackles are used in correctional facilities across the US throughout pregnancy, including during trips to and from the doctor, during labor and delivery, and postpartum.

For a while there, Pennsylvania seemed like a model of the anti-shackling and reproductive justice movement. In 2008, Philadelphia Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla prohibited the widespread practice of shackling women during labor. And, in 2010, the Healthy Birth Act was passed in Pennsylvania that prohibited the use of shackles on pregnant incarcerated women in their second and third trimesters of pregnancy during prenatal visits, labor, delivery, and postpartum.

But, the law isn’t being followed. The state of Pennsylvania has continued to illegally shackle incarcerated women during their second and third trimester of pregnancy stripping them of any of the mores Pennsylvania so proudly scrawls across bumper stickers and state quarters. The ACLU of PA estimates that 820 women a year are restrained while pregnant. Facilities in Pennsylvania filed only 109 incidents of restraint for 15 women in 2012-2013.

Four years later, prenatal clinics are unfamiliar with the law. Four years later, doctors didn’t know they could ask a correctional officer to remove the restraints. Most clinicians had never spoken to a correctional about security concerns, and many believed that using restraints was only for the correctional officer to decide and not medical personnel.

Only twenty states restrict the use of restraints on pregnant women with a statute. But, if what is happening in Pennsylvania is happening with a law in place, what is happening across the rest of the country?

I have never given birth. Honestly, I don’t even know if giving birth is in the cards for me. I imagine it hurts, an unbearable amount. I also imagine that there is nothing more joyful and loving than holding that bright red screaming baby after that hurt. I imagine it’s like no feeling I can imagine.

I have never been arrested. Never felt that cool steel around my wrists or ankles or pregnant stomach. Never felt that gut dropping feeling of uncertainty about the rest of my life.

The idea of facing these two forces, this incomparable pain and joy, the horror of detainment and arrest is unimaginable to me. Yet, every day women across the United States face this. They face it while they are in labor and delivery and while they hold their screaming red baby for the first time.

The reasons we imprison women in this country are complex, the reasons we shackle them are historic and myriad. But it does not make them right. Like many historic institutions in this country, it is time for shackling pregnant incarcerated women to come to an end. It is time to bring love and dignity to Pennsylvania.

For reproductive justice oriented organizing and mobilizing in PA check out New Voices Pittsburgh

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Review of Silent Choices: Black Women and Abortion

20 May

The other day, I watched (and enjoyed) a documentary called Silent Choices. Silent Choices is about abortion and other reproductive justice issues in the black community. The idea itself is wonderful; black women’s experiences are often ignored in the mainstream media and pro-choice movement itself. This documentary uplifts black women’s voices, which is a wonderful change from the typically white-dominated talk about abortion.

This documentary  succeeds in showcasing black women’s abortion related stories. Too often, attempts to discuss the issues of marginalized groups end up as people speaking over these groups, as opposed to people allying with them. This is not one of those documentaries. The makers of Silent Choices let black women speak for themselves; for once, black women’s voices were uplifted, not trampled over.

Every woman in this documentary had a touching story to tell, but one woman’s story in particular really touched me. Angela shared her pre-Roe illegal, back alley abortion story. She was afraid to tell her mother because she had five kids, loved kids, and would probably forbid the abortion, but after thinking about it, Angela says that her mother “may have done the same,” recognizing that all types of women need and use abortion. Angela attempted to abort her pregnancy twice. The first time, the person who attempted the abortion on her simply gave her a shot and then punched her in the stomach. After this failed attempt, she went to someone else. She describes this back-alley clinic as “factory-like” and she says that the provider was mean to her. She says, “it wasn’t like you could call somebody and take your choice of a good clinic. You had to find somebody underground, you had to find somebody who did this stuff.” Angela is not alone in her experience. People of color are disproportionately affected by poverty, and therefore are disproportionately affected by restrictive anti-choice laws. A white woman is far more likely to be able to afford to travel, to take more days off of work, or to pay more in order to obtain a safe abortion. Angela, along with many other women, did not have those options. The more restrictions we put on abortion, the more stories like Angela we have. Reproductive justice is not simply an issue of sexism; it is also an issue of racism and classism.

One aspect of this documentary that disappointed me was how much air time was given to anti-choicers, particularly one male anti-choicer. At some point in the documentary, it went from being a film that uplifted black women’s voices to typical anti-choice babble that went without rebuttal. I’m not going to lie; I kind of nodded off while listening to the anti-choicers talk.

The documentary ended off with a montage of responses to this statement, made by an anti-choicer: “Abortion is a white woman’s issue.” I found it refreshing to see pro-choicers rebuking this ridiculous statement. Overall, I thought this documentary did a great job at uplifting black women’s voices and illustrating how abortion and other reproductive rights issues affect the black community. This film is easily worth the five dollars being asked for it; I recommend it.

Thanks, White Dude, For Your Insightful Commentary on Black Women and Abortion

10 May

Men are often, historically and in the history of the present moment, great allies for women’s rights and reproductive justice. White people, men and women alike, have been great allies in the fight against racism. Straight people have been responsible for amazing gains made by the LGBTQ movement. Throughout the discourses around our nation’s most fraught issues, people at the intersection of many identities have commented thoughtfully, opening and expanding the conversation, weaving together the threads of communities to create these fragile but precious things we call “movements.”

The Chicago Tribune’s Dennis Byrne is not one of these people.

Posted on April 25th, Byrne’s article “Exploring blacks’ high rate of abortion” makes a pretty perfect outline for “How Not to Be a White Dude Talkin’ Bout Women and Race,” and how. You probably gathered that from the title, Byrne will be exploring “blacks'” high rate of abortion. Oh yeah. That’s sensitively handled. A good tip is to always try it in reverse, Mr. Byrne. How about “exploring whites’ high rate of abortion?” Oh, something sounds funny about that, doesn’t it? You might not phrase it that way. You might write, “Exploring the high rates of abortion among white women,” or something to that effect, yes? Call me crazy, but jumping off with that title does not suggest good things for the piece to follow. And yes – it does get worse.

According to Byrne,

“The rate of African-American abortions should trouble everyone and call for a calm, intelligent exploration of the causes. Not so was the response of the wedge-driving Planned Parenthood. It called the billboards an ‘offensive and condescending effort to stigmatize and shame African-American women while attempting to limit their ability to make private, personal medical decisions.'”

I would argue that Planned Parenthood called the billboards what they are – an offensive and condescending effort to stigmatize and shame African-American women. The billboards do not call for a “calm” or “intelligent” exploration – they make black women out to be baby-killers responsible for the extinction of a species (And in a country with a racially loaded history of equating black men and women to animals, that’s definitely not problematic, at all!). In Chicago, they hold black women responsible for aborting “the next world leader” – because the fate of the world hangs on your shoulders, mothers-to-be, since most children who are not aborted go on to be leaders of the free world. Don’t think of it as an unwanted pregnancy that will cost time you don’t have, money you don’t have, an education you can’t provide for it, food you can’t give it, and will require help the father and the government will not be giving you – think of it as the next world leader. Let’s not even address the guilt that might incur if the pregnant woman in question was raped, or if an abortion is a medical necessity.

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How to Be an Accountable Ally

13 Apr

I was at CLPP this past weekend — a yearly conference at Hampshire College called From Abortion Rights to Social Justice: Advancing the Movement for Reproductive Freedom. As you can imagine, a lot of shit goes down in this space, most of it good, some of it ugly, all of it challenging and inspiring. One big theme of the conference was how some organizations are not accountable allies. What we didn’t talk about, at least at the panels I attended, was HOW to be an accountable ally. How do you make sure that in fighting for your own rights, you’re not trampling on someone else’s?

Let me put a disclaimer on this: I’m no authority on the subject. I have a shitload of privilege and am unpacking it as we go along. If you see a gaping hole, please speak up! This is not the end all, be all — it’s the start of a conversation.

So. How do you be an accountable ally?

1. Own your history. This came up frequently at CLPP, mostly in reference to Planned Parenthood and their failure to message effectively on Margaret Sanger and her history with eugenics. In order to be an ally, you have to be willing to talk about the uncomfortable shit, especially when it involves racism, classism, sexism, transphobia, etc. Before you think about helping transform another person’s history, confront your own.

2. Examine your privilege. I’ll go on the record as saying that I hate the word privilege. It reeks of jargon and academic superiority, but it’s important nonetheless. A non-exhaustive list of articles to read on privilege:

3. Do some learning. The last thing you want to do is show up in someone else’s space and expect them to educate you about their lives, their struggle, their issues. Do some research on your own. Asking questions is fine, but expecting someone else to break it down for you is not. What do I mean, exactly? Asking a woman of color to explain the rocky history between feminism and racism is not acceptable. Most people are not walking encyclopedias, and it is not her job to educate you. At the very least, do some googling before you approach someone about their history.

4. Admit it when you screw up and apologize. I’m 100% guilty of being defensive instead of making a disagreement or confrontation into a learning opportunity. This is critical — we’re going to fuck up in this work, and we have to be humble enough to admit it when we do. Claiming that you had good intentions is not enough — own your mistakes! I’ll be the first to tell you that this is pretty freaking painful in the moment (not to mention an ego blow), but well worth it in the long run. No one is The Perfect Ally, an admitting it proves that you’re aware of your own faults.

5. This is a process, and it won’t be easy. So forgive yourself when you make mistakes, because you will. Just because you intend to become an ally doesn’t mean that you are one — being an ally is a two way street. It’s an honor and privilege (!) to be trusted by a community that’s not your own.

For more on CLPP, take a look herehere and here. And please add your comments and additions to this list.