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Doctors Condemn Shackling Mothers in Labor and Delivery

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This week, the American Medical Association (AMA) called for an end to one of the most draconian practices in the U.S.: the shackling of incarcerated mothers during labor, delivery and post delivery. The AMA's resolution rightly condemns the practice as "barbaric" and "medically hazardous" to both the mother and her baby. Moreover, the resolution actually encourages doctor groups to draft legislation in their respective states to end the shackling of imprisoned mothers.

We need the AMA's voice. In 2008, the Rebecca Project successfully ended the shackling of mothers in labor, delivery, and post-delivery in all federal correctional facilities, in part because of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). In June 2007, the ACOG called for an end to shackling mothers behind bars during labor and delivery because "physical restraints have interfered with the ability of physicians to safely practice medicine by reducing their ability to assess and evaluate the physical condition of the mother and fetus, and have similarly made the labor and delivery process more difficult than it needs to be, thus, overall, putting the health and lives of women and unborn children at risk." Their statement, joined by the courageous testimonies of mothers subject to being shackled while incarcerated, helped us to move lawmakers and the Bureau of Prisons to end the practice in all federal correctional facilities.

But, in 43 states and the District of Columbia, children are born to mothers in shackles. In these states, jails and prisons shackle mothers when they are in labor and when they deliver their babies. Mothers are shackled during labor and delivery regardless of whether a mother has a history of violence (which only a small minority have), regardless of whether she has ever absconded or attempted to escape, and regardless of her state of consciousness.

The Departments of Correction in the states that shackle mothers defend the practice as a matter of security. Mothers in labor and delivery, they argue, pose a potential security threat when transported to the hospital and during the hospital stay. And, since it is standard procedure to shackle prisoners with other medical emergencies, mothers in labor and delivery are no exception.

Anyone who has given birth, indeed any person who has witnessed the labor and birthing process, knows that the prospect of a woman in childbirth trying to run away or tackle a correction officer is almost comical. Shackling these mothers is simply a draconian and inhumane act that cannot be justified in terms of security concerns.

Some states are beginning to realize that shackling during childbirth must end. Currently, there are seven states with legislation regulating the use of restraints on pregnant women -- California, Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, Texas, Vermont, and Washington. Our national anti-shackling coalition has supported many of the state advocates who have worked tirelessly to pass these statutes.

In Texas, the push for legislation emanated from a coalition of advocates, including the ACLU, Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, and state reproductive health organizations. Doulas in Washington state played a critical role in their statute's enactment. And, of course, in none of these states that outlawed shackling, is there a single case of a mother in labor or delivery escaping or causing harm to themselves, security guards or medical staff.

Thankfully, the AMA now joins in the chorus of organizations and concerned citizens seeking an end to a practice that belongs more to medieval times than the 21st century.