Desecrating the Sanctity of Life: Shackling Women Prisoners During Childbirth
"When Jesus looked for an analogy of suffering followed by joy, he said in John 16:21, 'Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world.' Ms. Lumsey described how shackling robbed the divine joy from bringing her son into the world."
Forty states in our country do not have a prohibition against shackling women prisoners during childbirth.
This is a shameful practice that strips away the dignity from the sacred moment of welcoming a new life into the world and increases danger to the health and well-being of both the child and mother. My own state, Virginia, is one of them.
In our Christian faith, the sanctity of human life is established in Genesis 1:27: "So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him." In particular, the newborn child bears within himself the divine image, the image of the Christ child. Imagine Joseph frantically preparing a stable for pregnant Mary as the humble welcoming place for a new life. The human story behind Christ’s birth demonstrates that every mother and every child should experience a degree of dignity in the moment of birth.
When restraints are used during labor, it limits the extent to which doctors are able to manipulate a mother for the safety of the unborn child. Obstetricians recognize that women who are in labor need to be able to assume different positions during birthing, and that to restrain or shackle renders a mother and her child more vulnerable to complications. Especially during the final stages of labor it is important for the physician to be able to act quickly in order to avoid potentially life-threatening emergencies for both the unborn baby and the mother.
Due to shame and fear, women across the country often decline to speak out about their experience of giving birth in shackles. However, we have enough accounts from women who have been brave enough to step forward and tell their story to know that we should not wait to prohibit this shameful practice.
NRCAT recently interviewed Shawanna Lumsey, who gave birth to her son in shackles while serving a short sentence for a non-violent crime in an Arkansas prison. Ms. Lupsey, a petite 115 pounds, was transported to a hospital for her delivery in a van accompanied by an armed guard. She was handcuffed at the wrists and shackled at the feet. Upon arriving at the hospital, Ms. Lumsey was immediately shackled to a wheelchair. After being moved to a hospital room, her legs were shackled to the bed posts and her arms were shackled to the IV rail. The armed guard remained with Ms. Lumsey at all times.
The doctor was not at the hospital when Ms. Lumsey arrived and had to be called in for the delivery. As her labor continued, Ms. Lumsey was unable to get up or adjust herself to relieve the pain of her contractions. She received no epidural. By the time the doctor arrived, Ms. Lumsey was almost fully dilated. Only after the doctor came in and requested the shackles be removed was Ms. Lumsey freed from her leg restraints. Less than 10 minutes later, Ms. Lumsey gave birth to a nine pound baby boy.
Most of us associate such a moment with a proud mother reaching out to hold her child for the first time, a sense of relief overcoming her body and a look of awe coming over her face. Ms. Lumsey remembers a very different experience. After her son’s birth, Ms. Lumsey's legs were immediately re-shackled to the bed posts. As a direct result of the shackling, Ms. Lumsey’s pelvis never returned to its original position after birth. She had to go undergo major surgery in which a piece of her hip was used to fuse her pelvis back together.
When Jesus looked for an analogy of suffering followed by joy, he said in John 16:21, "Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world." Ms. Lumsey described how shackling robbed the divine joy from bringing her son into the world. She remembers the anguish of her son’s birth because of her permanent physical injury and because she cannot escape the shameful story, which her son must now carry with him. “If you don’t tell them, someone else will tell them how they were born,” Ms Lumsey explained.
In my own state, Virginia, legislation that would have prohibited the egregious practice of shackling women prisoners during childbirth was considered last week. I testified in support of the bill at the initial subcommittee hearing in my capacity as Associate Director of Policy at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT). For me this was not just a professional issue, but as an evangelical, a deeply held personal one as well.
The bill passed unanimously in the subcommittee. Unfortunately, rather than choosing to protect the sacredness of birth and safeguarding infants, the full Committee defeated the bill. The Chairwoman did agree to write a letter to the Department of Corrections recommending they look further into the issue. I pray they do the right thing.
As Evangelicals, we should not tolerate a situation that forces women to welcome their children into the world in chains. Please join me in imploring your state legislature to put an end shackling, a procedure that desecrates the sanctity of birth and life.
For more information about your state’s policy on shackling, see the Mothers Behind Bars report by the Rebecca Project.