To understand how being incarcerated shapes pregnant individuals’ abortion desires,
experiences, and access in this punitive, rights-limited, racially stratified environment.
From May 2018 to November 2020, we conducted semi-structured, qualitative interviews
with pregnant incarcerated people in a prison and a jail each in two states, one abortion
restrictive and one abortion supportive. Interviews explored whether participants
considered abortion for this pregnancy; attempted to obtain an abortion in custody;
whether and how incarceration affected their feelings about pregnancy, parenting,
and abortion; and options counseling and prenatal care experiences in custody.
We interviewed 38 people. Participants’ abortion and pregnancy decisions were deeply
shaped by the conditions of incarceration, and some experienced pregnancy continuation
as punishment. Four themes emerged: (1) staff explicitly preventing people from accessing
abortion, giving false information or imposing anti-abortion views on patients; (2)
participants assuming that, because incarceration removes autonomy, they had no right
to abortion; (3) temporal uncertainties of court and carceral medical care influencing
abortion access; (4) degrading and traumatic conditions of incarceration, poor healthcare,
and impending post-birth separation from infants made people wish they had obtained
an abortion. Themes were similar in restrictive and supportive states.
Being incarcerated shaped pregnant people's abilities to access abortion, to consider
whether it was even an option, their pregnancy decision-making processes, and their
feelings about being pregnant. These subtle carceral control aspects were more prominent
barriers to abortion than overt logistical ones. Incarceration constrains and devalues
reproductive wellbeing, and in punitive ways that are a microcosm of broader forces
of reproductive control in US society.