Bodies in a Zone of Indistinction: a history of the Biomedicalization of Pregnancy in Prison



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Bodies in a Zone of Indistinction:

A History of the Biomedicalization of Pregnancy in Prison

Erica Fletcher

Introduction to the History of Medicine

Fall 2012

Final Paper

Introduction: Current Trends in Women Prisons

The United States’ prison systems house more inmates than any other country in the Global North.1 Since Nixon’s proclamation of a War on Drugs in the 1960s and Ronald Regan’s push to create stricter penalties for drug crimes in the 1980s, prisons have seen an influx of women inmates, with the rate of incarceration increasing six times after this public policy was enacted.2 To meet the demand, prison systems expanded dramatically and now quarter over 110,000 women prisoners every year—5,000 to 6,000 of whom are pregnant or become pregnant during their incarceration.3

In prison, pregnant women lack the autonomy to choose their healthcare provider, to decide the time they are taken to the prison hospital for delivery, and to raise their infant.4 Still, because federal law states that prisons must provide medical care to all inmates, pregnant prisoners can expect at least some form of regular checkups and other prenatal care throughout the duration of their pregnancy.5 In some states across the nation, pregnant prisoners may even be able to take labor and delivery classes, deliver their babies without being shackled to the hospital bed, and-- depending on their “good” behavior-- have the option to stay with their children for a short period in either prison nurseries or residency programs.6 Through these initiatives, the medical establishment’s encroachment in penitentiaries can be seen as an “advancement” that institutes policy reformations for a more “humane” approach to ushering life into prison space.

Regardless, throughout this “progress” narrative, women’s bodies remain a space for political control and domination in both the spheres of law and medicine. As both spheres fuse and become co-constitutive of each other, Giorgio Agamben writes, “The novelty of modern biopolitics lies in the fact that the biological given is as such immediately political, and the political is as such immediately the biological given.”7 Likewise, in prison, bodies of pregnant women become zones of indistinction in which both biological and political spheres coalesce and the very material effects of their engagement are made visible. To that end, analysis of selected scientific studies will illuminate the ways in which the authority of science (including medicine and psychology) is co-opted by the medical establishment to make an appeal for more extensive accommodations of pregnant prisoners. Moreover, this paper will argue that the biomedicalization of female criminality in the last three decades has created a space in which certain “liberties” are increasingly afforded to expecting mothers in prison, yet paradoxically this movement also advances the agenda to moralize, discipline, and control pregnant bodies.






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