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Roth, Rachel. “Searching for the State: Who Governs Prisoner’s Reproductive Rights?” Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State and Society” 11, no. 3 (2004): 411–38.


This article unpacks the location and exercise of state power over the reproductive health of women in the criminal justice system. The author approaches the subject from a vantage point that combines a classic political science approach with a critical race and gender studies approach, both of which she argues treat the state as monolithic. Instead, the author delves into the interwoven local, state, and federal policies that impact women’s reproductive health while incarcerated, examining the roles of state and private actors. This web of players obscures policy and complicates accountability. The author supports her argument with evidence of human rights abuses, from denied timely and safe abortions, to antenatal care, prenatal care, preventative care, and cancer treatment. In many cases, no written policy exists, with reproductive health decisions made on a case-by-case basis, where a legal victory for one woman does little to protect the health of thousands of others going through the same jail system. While she notes that publicly available policy regarding reproductive health stands as a crucial first step in securing reproductive rights for women in all levels of incarceration, she also documents a large gulf between policy and practice. Putting forth a clear and detailed argument, the author demonstrates that scholars, activists and policy makers working for reproductive freedom must take into account the experiences of women who have been incarcerated. Particularly for low-income women and women of color, populations overrepresented in the criminal justice system, multiple layers of state intervention shape family and reproductive health. The author addresses a wide range of concerns, from policy regarding health interventions available to women in prison and jail to custody and benefits for women raising children upon release. This article offers a strong foundation for understanding the range of reproductive health concerns for women in the criminal justice system and argues that, without major reform, women and their families suffer unduly from rights violations.


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Legislation/policy   Government regulation   Criminal justice/incarceration   Health disparities