Late one night, I was helping a woman deliver her baby at a hospital in Pennsylvania. It was a familiar delivery room scene—except that the mother-to-be was shackled to the bed.
She was incarcerated at a nearby prison, and though I had no idea what got her there, I had some idea that the pangs of labor and the epidural’s numbing effects precluded the need for restraints. I saw signs of fetal distress, and worried about the metal chains if we needed to do an emergency cesarean section. Thankfully, she pushed her baby out, and I placed the baby into mom’s one unshackled arm.
I now practice as an obstetrician-gynecologist at the San Francisco County Jail and at San Francisco General Hospital, where jailed pregnant women deliver their babies.
I have told this story many times over the past three years, as an anti-shackling bill has been considered in California. Despite its unanimous passage in the legislature two years in a row, Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown have vetoed the bill, disregarding the recommendations of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association.
So here we are again. A new year, a stronger bill, a familiar governor. While a 2005 California law prohibits the shackling of pregnant women in labor, placing chains around a pregnant woman’s ankles, belly or wrists is medically unsafe throughout pregnancy. Anything that makes walking more difficult—such as shackles—can increase her risk of falling, and make it harder to break her fall. A fall in pregnancy can harm the baby as well as the mother, and, in some cases, cause stillbirth. AB 2530 authored by San Diego Assembly Member Toni Atkins would prohibit the most dangerous forms of shackling that most often lead to these types of falls.
Shackling incarcerated pregnant women is largely unnecessary. Anyone who has been pregnant or in labor can tell you that running off with a pregnant belly is nearly impossible. The reality is that 70% of women in California correctional facilities are non-violent offenders. At the hospital where I practice in San Francisco, women are not shackled during or after labor and are only rarely shackled at other points in their pregnancy. My colleagues and I have never felt unsafe and no woman has escaped. San Francisco already enacts essentially what AB 2530 calls for. The rest of California can do this, too.
We have come back with this bill because in Governor Brown’s veto message last year, he stated that “it certainly seems inappropriate to shackle a pregnant woman unless absolutely necessary.” We agree. So does the legislature and law enforcement. With no opposition, we are delivering a workable bill that protects both the safety of pregnant women and the counties responsible for them. If Governor Brown means what he says, he should sign this bill immediately.
Carolyn Sufrin is a women’s health specialist at San Francisco General Hospital and at San Francisco County Jail.