As an OB/GYN physician, my No. 1 responsibility is to care for the health and safety of my patients. When a woman goes into labor, my team and I try to do everything we can to keep her comfortable, both physically and mentally.
It is for this reason that I strongly support L.D. 1013, a bill before the Maine Legislature that would prevent the shackling of pregnant women by banning the use of restraints on a prisoner or detainee who is known to be pregnant.
Make no mistake: shackling a pregnant woman can pose an undue health risk to both mother and fetus. It is unnecessary, it is dangerous, and it shows an indifference to the serious medical needs of a woman and her pregnancy.
Because Maine does not have a law regulating this practice, the decision about whether to shackle a pregnant woman is often left to the correctional officer and not a medical professional. I routinely see women for prenatal visits who have been transported in shackles and who attend their appointments, with a correctional officer, still in shackles. These women may not even be able to raise their shirts so I can examine their bellies.
It could be argued by some that incarcerated women “deserve” the humiliation and dehumanization of shackles, related to the crime for which they were convicted. However, the vast majority of female inmates are nonviolent offenders, are not “lifers,” and do not pose an immediate threat to the people around them.
These women will have lives and children to return to after they are released. It behooves all of us to maximize pregnant women’s physical safety during pregnancy by not shackling them, and to facilitate labor management and postpartum mobility and bonding.
Shackles create significant and unnecessary risks, as women who are shackled are more likely to accidentally trip or fall and harm their pregnancies. A fall in pregnancy is not trivial. It can lead to preterm labor, placental abruption, and stillbirth. The birthing process also requires a freedom of movement not afforded by physical restraints. Shackles can interfere with our ability as medical staff to conduct an emergency procedure, and it can considerably complicate the final stages of delivery, when a woman’s mobility is extremely important both for pushing and for repositioning due to fetal heart rate concerns.
When I am with a woman who is going through labor, my focus needs to be on her so that I can make the best medical decisions in the quickest amount of time. Correctional officers do not have the training to judge the effects of physical restraints on a pregnant woman and are not equipped to respond in an emergency with immediate medical assistance. Therefore, the decision as to whether a woman is shackled or not cannot be left to the decision making of the correctional officer. This is a procedure that needs to be clearly outlawed for the safety of our incarcerated pregnant women and for the safety of their babies.
Apart from the purely physical effects caused by restraints, there are equally damaging psychological effects. As an OB/GYN, I know the importance of postpartum bonding between a mother and her newborn. If a woman is required to go through childbirth in restraints, this essential stage in the healthy development of a child is lost forever.
Shockingly, Maine is the only state in New England that still allows this practice, contributing to the “F” grade that we received from the Women’s Law Center for our state’s policies on caring for pregnant prisoners.
In states where shackling of pregnant prisoners or detainees has been outlawed, no instances of escape or harm caused by an inmate have ever been documented. What’s more, the bill under consideration here includes procedures for the rare instance when a restraint is absolutely necessary to protect the prisoner, correctional staff, or medical professionals like myself.
Major organizations within the medical, corrections, and human rights communities all agree that shackling is a dangerous practice to subject pregnant women to. With this kind of broad consensus, does Maine really want to stand alone as the only New England state that allows such an inhumane policy?
Let’s bring Maine up to speed with the rest of our neighbors and ensure that all pregnant women are treated safely and with the respect they deserve while they go through the most critical stages of childbirth.
Brigid Mullally is an OB/GYN at MaineGeneral Obstetrics & Gynecology in Augusta.