In 2007, a 17-year-old girl called Cora Fletcher was charged with retail theft. Over a year later, after she missed a court date, she was sent to the Cook County jail, in Illinois. She was eight months pregnant at the time.
During a pre-natal check-up at the facility, her baby appeared to have no heartbeat, so she was sent to the county hospital. As the medical team tried to induce her, Fletcher claims that both her hands and both her feet were shackled to either side of the bed. Only when she finally went into labor, three days later, was one hand and one foot released. It’s hard to imagine a more crucifying way to force a woman to try to give birth.
Sadly for Fletcher, there was no payoff for the trauma and humiliation she was forced to endure, as her baby was born dead.
Fletcher was one of the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit brought against Cook County on behalf of 80 female prisoners and detainees who also claimed to have had similar experiences of being shackled duringchildbirth. Just under two weeks ago, the county agreed to a settlementof $4.1m dollars payable to the women, who will each receive between $5,000 and $45,000.
The Cook County sheriff’s office made it clear, however, that they were agreeing to the deal for expediency’s sake only and were admitting to no wrongdoing. This despite the fact that Illinois became the first state in the union to ban the practice of shackling women during labor, back in 1999 – at least seven years before any of the women named in the lawsuit had their babies. A spokesman for the department, Frank Bilecki, went so far as to issue a statement claiming the jail’s treatment of (female) detainees is the “most progressive in the nation”.
If that is the case, women in America better watch their backs.
The practices of making pregnant women wear belly chains and of shackling their hands and feet before, after and sometimes during labor, are just another way in which the United States distinguishes itself – or fails to distinguish itself, perhaps – as anything but a bastion of liberty and justice and a champion of women’s rights. No other country in the “civilized world” finds shackling pregnant women a necessary or desirable procedure. The practice has been repeatedly and vigorously condemned by the committee against torture at the United Nations; and it has been decried by both the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (You can imagine how doctors relish the prospect of trying to safely deliver a baby whose mother is in chains.)
Yet, here in America, only 16 of the 50 states have any kind of legislation to restrict or ban the practice. And as was evidenced in the Cook County, Illinois law suit, even states that do have laws on their books don’t necessarily feel compelled to uphold them.
I hate America.