How Did Abortion Opponents Force a Prisoner to Stay Pregnant?

In Alabama, officials pulled out all the stops to persuade a woman behind bars not to have an abortion. The fact that it worked may have set a terrifying precedent.

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Who would have thought becoming a mother could be a “get out of jail free” card?

For weeks, an Alabama woman known only in court documents as “Jane Doe” had been demanding an abortion—a procedure inaccessible to her because she was incarcerated at the time. According to reports, she had an abortion scheduled before being put in jail, and asked Lauderdale County sheriff Rick Singleton to allow her out just long enough to terminate her pregnancy after being placed behind bars. He refused to let her to go to the clinic for the procedure without a court order for a medical transfer, so she obtained legal counsel to force him to assent.

Then, suddenly, she decided she’d prefer to give birth.

Abortion-rights supporters thought the timing of her change of heart—which occurred just after the state had filed to terminate her parental rights for that future child—seemed suspicious. So, too, did the judge who was supposed to be ruling on whether she would get her medical transfer just a few days later.

However, “Jane Doe” didn’t budge from her new stance. A meeting with a judge confirmed what she had stated in an affidavit presented to the court by her new lawyer, Maurice McCaney (a court-appointed attorney who also happens to run a faith-based Christian day care and private school): She was choosing to remain pregnant and give birth uncoerced and of her own free will.

I, for one, wish her the best of luck. Pregnancy, birth, and parenting are ridiculously hard, even under the best of circumstances. Pregnancy and birth behind bars? That’s infinitely worse. Prenatal care can be lacking, nutrition difficult to find, and birth too often happens in shackles.

Still, I can’t help but wonder exactly how “uncoerced” she truly was. Her shift away from wanting the abortion occurred only after the court proceedings to rescind her parental rights were initiated. The idea that terminating her parental rights would somehow then make it impossible for her to end her pregnancy was laughable to most legal analysts I talked to. After all, they said, a pregnant person’s right to an abortion doesn’t rest on whether she is the parent of the potential life inside her or not.

Even those in the Alabama family legal community scoffed at the gambit. Heather Fann, the head of the Alabama State Bar Association’s family law section, told the Associated Press that the move was “absurd” and that “the entire concept flies in the face of what we are set up to do.”

But what if that effort was never meant to actually be successful? Could the state have instigated a sham challenge not because they hoped they could win, but because it gave them the chance to then give “Doe” a new lawyer to talk to, and one who may have the ability to convince her not to terminate the pregnancy?

After all, it was this new lawyer, Maurice McCaney, who was lucky enough to experience her change of heart over parenthood. It was during his meetings with “Doe” to discuss this parental termination suit, as well as her initial charges of “chemical endangerment” (otherwise known as taking illegal drugs while being in the process of gestating an embryo or fetus), that she decided to drop her bid for an abortion.

McCaney argues he didn’t coerce her. It just so happens that most of the punishments she was facing would potentially disappear—but only if she remained pregnant. McCaney told The Guardian that there was never any discussion that her charges would be dropped or that the court cases would go away, saying, “I certainly did not dangle anything in front of her like a carrot.

But according to The Guardian, “District attorney Chris Connolly said the state’s attempt to seize the woman’s parental rights will be put on hold while she is treated for drug dependency at an in-patient center, and the drug-related charges will be put on hold at least until she completes treatment … and the charges eventually could be dismissed should the woman do well in treatment.”

A move from a jail to an in-patient center, and potentially having the charges of chemical endangerment of a minor dropped all together? That seems like a pretty massive incentive for a woman currently in prison to choose to give up her quest for an abortion. Especially when terminating the pregnancy means a return to a jail run by the sheriff she was forced to take to court in order to exercise her legal right to terminate a pregnancy, and surrounded by a highly volatile prison system in a state where the vast majority of people oppose abortion.

There are a number of ways to pressure a person not to have an abortion, and making her life so miserable that any break from that misery seems like a reward is just one of them. Sadly, for those who are imprisoned, that’s a situation that appears far too likely to occur. When those who are in power literally hold the keys to your every day health, safety and comfort, doing what they want is the path of least resistance, even when that means carrying and giving birth to a child you didn’t necessarily want to have.

Despite whether “Jane Doe” was coerced, there is little doubt she was at a minimum pressured into continuing a pregnancy. Hopefully, in the end, she will be happy with the final decision. If nothing else, the anti-abortion legal players involved seem quite pleased with themselves and obviously believe that whatever strong-arming they may have done, it was for her own good. “We are not trying to send her to prison,” Connolly told The Guardian. “We are trying to work with her so she can become a productive member of the community and a good mother to that child.”

Yes, even if being a mother was never her idea in the first place. 


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