On Purim, Exploring the Intersections of Reproductive Justice and Criminal Justice

February 25, 2015

On Purim, we celebrate a time of transition for the Jews, from “grief to joy and from mourning to a festive day—to make them days of feasting and joy, and sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor” (Megillat Esther 9). As we prepare for Purim, we look forward to a time of “feasting and merrymaking” (Megillat Esther 9:22). Indeed, Purim is a time to celebrate the fortitude and resilience of the Jewish people, focusing especially on the impressive role of women leaders that is unique in the Purim story and throughout our history. Yet, as we celebrate our triumphs over the injustices of discrimination and exclusion, we must also reflect on the injustices that persist in our world today. A new report by the Women in Prison Project, an initiative of the Correctional Association of New York, reveals one such travesty, finding that people do not receive adequate reproductive healthcare while incarcerated. The report, titled “Reproductive Injustice: The State of Reproductive Health Care for Women in New York State Prisons,” is an in-depth study of reproductive health care in the New York state prison system. Over the course of five years, researchers interviewed 950 inmates, visited prisons across the state, conducted surveys and reviewed medical charts to reveal “a shockingly poor standard of care, the routine denial of basic reproductive health and hygiene items, and the continued egregious practice of shackling pregnant women during labor and childbirth despite a 2011 law prohibiting it.”   The report’s key findings include these deeply disturbing insights about reproductive health care in the New York State prison system:

“1) Women are routinely shackled during pregnancy and some still experience the horror of being shackled during childbirth, even though this practice was outlawed in NY in 2009. 2) Pregnant women face poor conditions of confinement, including insufficient food and damaging childbirth experiences. 3) Many women receive substandard reproductive health care and face serious delays in accessing GYN services. 4) Women are routinely denied basic reproductive health items, including contraception and sufficient sanitary supplies. 5) Women in solitary confinement face egregious conditions, and pregnant women can be placed in solitary, a dangerous setting for them and their babies.”

We reaffirm the Biblical concept that the criminal is a human being, capable of reshaping his or her life. "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live" (Ezekiel 33:11). Our pursuit of justice in the penal system must extend beyond the reforms that first come to mind when we think of criminal justice, such as sentencing reform and an end to racial profiling. We must also incorporate access to reproductive health care so that inmates may preserve their health and retain this aspect of their fundamental dignity. As Reform Jews, we believe firmly in a woman’s right to act as a moral agent in her reproductive health decisions, and that her circumstances must not burden or restrict her access to the health care she needs to realize those decisions. Just as a woman’s financial situation must not be a barrier to access to reproductive health care, neither should her incarceration restrict access to these fundamental health services. To integrate your commitment to women’s rights into your Purim celebration, check out the RAC’s Purim study guides on women’s rights and fighting misogyny, both deeply connected to reproductive rights and to the cultural norms and policies that restrict them.

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