Commentary: Utah was right to limit the practice of shackling women during childbirth

In this Feb. 22, 2019, photo, State Democratic Rep. Stephanie Pitcher speaks on the house floor at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. Utah is one of at least four states considering bans this year on the shackling of incarcerated women during childbirth. The Utah measure has passed the state House and is being considered by the Senate. Pitcher argues the chains are both unnecessary during labor and exacerbate health risks. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The wonder of childbirth. The arrival of a new child into the world, an entire lifetime before her.

Birthing was not easy. Her mother labored for nearly a full day. Twenty hours of increasing pressure and pain from contractions. Exhausted and thrilled to hold her new baby, she instinctively reaches out for her.

Clink! Her reach is impeded by handcuffs that have been secured her to the hospital bed. What should be a wonderful opportunity to begin bonding with her child is interrupted by a flash of reality. The new mother is an inmate, only out of prison to deliver her baby. Both her hands and feet have been shackled to the bed for the duration. Her wrists and ankles red and inflamed from struggling against the restraints.

While the scenario above is simply imagined, it becomes the nightmare reality for expectant mothers in more than half of the United States. In addition to restricting range of motion during birth, shackles can put both mother and baby at risk of injury. With both feet and hands bound, the mother may not be able to break a forward fall.

Legislation in Utah recently signed by Gov. Gary Herbert bans the practice of shackling pregnant inmates during labor and delivery. On May 14, Utah joined 22 other states with similar regulations granting a modicum of dignity and safety to prisoners in childbirth.

Utah should be commended for its leap away from the barbaric punishment of its female inmates. This measure will be of benefit to both mother and newborn child. In addition to encouraging restraint-free laboring, the mother will have the opportunity to hold and bond with her child in the postpartum period.

There are those who will argue that the inmate should be restrained for the safety of medical staff, or to prevent her from fleeing. This bill does allow for the corrections officer to make a judgement call regarding an inmate’s flight risk as well as risks she poses to the medical staff and general public. If deemed necessary, soft restraints on the upper limbs may be used; however, under no circumstance will her ankles or torso be restrained. Any use of restraints on a pregnant inmate is to be documented and reported.

Some may further point to the 2018 case in Rochester, New York, of a pregnant inmate escaping custody after breaking free from her soft restraints. Relaxing the practice of fully restraining laboring mothers will come with additional risks, but the benefit to the health and safety of the mother and child is supersedes those risks.

Inmates are human and should be granted a degree of humanity, despite their guilt or innocence. It is not incumbent on corrections or medical staff to mete out punishment beyond that which has been sentenced. Birthing a child is one exceptional instance in which the chains should be loosed and the mother be momentarily free to safely deliver her innocent child.

Erin Morris, Kaysville, is a longtime Utah resident, and a master of science candidate at Columbia University, New York, in the field of Bioethics anticipating graduation later this year.