Proposed bill would outlaw forcing pregnant inmates to give birth before due dates

A fundamental respect for the dignity of all people is the driving force behind legislation ensuring that pregnant prisoners are not forced to schedule an induction of labor before their due dates, and that strip searches are only performed by correctional officers of the same gender as the prisoners being searched. 

House Bill 2337 is identical to a bill introduced last year by former Rep. Athena Salman, a Tempe Democrat who resigned from her seat in December to become the director of Arizona campaigns for abortion rights group Reproductive Freedom For All.

The bill’s sponsor this year, Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton, D-Tucson, said she was happy to become the bill’s steward when Salman left the legislature. 

“When it comes to labor, birth and delivery, the person who gets to make that choice is the person who is pregnant,” Stahl Hamilton told the Arizona Mirror. 

Even women outside of the prison system have dealt with coercion or outright refusal to comply with their wishes regarding labor, Stahl Hamilton said, including her own mother who was induced without her consent when she was pregnant with the legislator. 

At the time, Stahl Hamilton’s parents were living in Kayenta, on the Navajo Nation. The doctor didn’t want her mother to give birth there, far away from the closest hospital, so he induced her without her consent, Stahl Hamilton said. 

In January 2023, the Arizona Republic reported that at least three women who were incarcerated in Perryville Prison were induced prior to their due dates, without their consent. 

One woman, Jocelyn Heffner, was twice induced during her 37th week of pregnancy during separate incarcerations, once in 2020 and once in 2022, the Republic reported. 

NaphCare, the contractor that took over Arizona’s prisoner health care operations in October 2022, denied having a policy of forcing prisoners to induce labor. 

Donna Hamm, director of Middle Ground Prison Reform, said that she’s heard complaints of forced inductions from prisoners in the past, but not since Ryan Thornell took over as director of the Department of Corrections early last year. Thornell was appointed by Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs. 

“There would be no justification, under any medical practice, to induce labor because it’s more convenient — especially at the objection of the patient,” Hamm told the Mirror. 

Hamm has heard that pregnant prisoners were forced to schedule an induction ahead of their due date instead of waiting for their baby to come naturally because prison staff didn’t want to deal with an emergency situation in the middle of the night, when it would be inconvenient for them.

But in Hamm’s view, the most important part of the bill changes the rules for strip searches and pat downs of prisoners, requiring that a corrections officer of the same gender perform strip searches as well as pat downs, with the caveat that pat downs can be performed by correctional officers of a different gender if no other officers are available. 

The legislation would also require documentation of any pat downs performed by officers of a different gender than the prisoner, as well as the reason that the pat down was necessary, and would stipulate that strip searches must be conducted in a private room. 

At present, strip searches can be conducted by officers of a different gender if no other officer is available. 

Hamm said she’s heard complaints of officers making inappropriate comments during strip searches, adding that the act itself can be humiliating and can trigger trauma responses from inmates who have been victims of sexual assault. In her view, these changes to make strip searches and pat downs less traumatic for prisoners is a step in the right direction, but added that the bill is missing any repercussions for prison workers who don’t follow the rules. 

“I think we need to preserve dignity and humanity,” Stahl Hamilton said. “I think a person’s dignity is important, no matter the choices we’ve made. And I think if we dehumanize, we also become dehumanized in the act.”

Last year, Salman’s bill didn’t make it to the floor for a vote, and with Republicans still in control of the Legislature, Stahl Hamilton is not optimistic that her bill will make it any farther this year. 

But she said she still believes that it’s important to propose bills like this one that would make worthy changes to the law, and that could be ready to run again next year, if Democrats overtake the Republicans’ one-seat majorities in both the Arizona House and Senate in the upcoming 2024 election. 

“It’s important for us to use our voices,” Stahl Hamilton said. “These are the tools we have to show up and represent the people of Arizona.”

Comments are closed.