“I Mean, I Didn't Really Have a Choice of Anything:” How Incarceration Influences Abortion Decision‐making and Precludes Access in the United States

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Peer-Reviewed Article

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Objective: To understand how the punitive, rights-limiting, and racially stratified environment of incarceration in the United States (US) shapes the abortion desires, access, and pregnancy experiences of pregnant women, transgender men, and gender non-binary individuals.

Methods: From May 2018–November 2020, we conducted semi-structured, qualitative interviews with pregnant women in prisons and jails in an abortion supportive and an abortion restrictive state. Interviews explored whether participants considered abortion for this pregnancy; attempted to obtain an abortion in custody; whether and how incarceration affected their thoughts about pregnancy, birth, parenting, and abortion; and options counseling and prenatal care experiences, or lack thereof, in custody.

Results: The conditions of incarceration deeply shaped our 39 participants' abortion and pregnancy decisions, with some experiencing pregnancy continuation as punishment. Four themes emerged: (1) medical providers' overt obstruction of desired abortions; (2) participants assuming that incarcerated women had no right to abortion; (3) carceral bureaucracy constraining abortion access; and (4) carceral conditions made women wish they had aborted. Themes were similar in supportive and restrictive states.

Conclusions: Incarceration shaped participants' thoughts about pregnancy and their abilities to access abortion, consider whether abortion was an attainable option, and make pregnancy-related decisions. These subtle carceral control aspects presented more frequent barriers to abortion than overt logistical ones. The carceral environment played a more significant role than the state's overall abortion climate in shaping abortion experiences. Incarceration constrains and devalues reproductive wellbeing in punitive ways that are a microcosm of broader forces of reproductive control in US society.


First published: 02 July 2023.