When Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022, many considered it to be a huge victory for the pro-life movement. Yet, recent data shows that abortions have continued to rise, suggesting that we still have a long way to go in making our country a place that is truly welcoming to new life and supportive of the mothers who bear it into the world
It’s no secret that the United States can be a difficult place to be pregnant and raise a child, especially for those with fewer resources. There are a myriad of hurdles that new parents face: a lack of federally mandated paid parental leave, exorbitant hospital bills that can be difficult to pay under our insurance system, the rising cost of already expensive childcare, and a startling maternal mortality rate, especially for Black women. These are all massive, crucial issues that must be addressed if we are to more fully welcoming to new life.
In this (very much non-exhaustive) list, I hope to highlight a few related, but lesser-known, policies and procedures that make it more difficult for women to welcome life and to bond with their new babies.
1. Women in prison are sometimes forced to give birth in chains, and are often separated from their babies after 24 hours.
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration of women in the world, and many women are subjected to sexual abuse while in prison. A 2014 federal investigation found that more than a third of the staff at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama – the subject of a recent FRONTLINE documentary about pregnant inmates – had sex with inmates. According to the Pregnancy in Prison Statistics Project, about 58,000 pregnant women are admitted to jails or prisons each year, and thousands of those women give birth while still incarcerated.
The treatment of these women varies, depending on which prison they are in. Thirty-seven states have passed laws that forbid the shackling of women while in labor and delivery, and in 2018 the federal First Step Act included a provision that prohibited the use of restraints on pregnant women in custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the U.S. Marshals Service. But the laws that do exist still make exceptions for “public safety,” and in practice, a 2018 survey of nurses who had cared for incarcerated pregnant women found that 82% of those nurses reported that their patients were shackled at least some of the time. The medical community widely opposes this practice because it interferes with the care they are able to provide birthing women.
Another crucial issue with the treatment of incarcerated pregnant women is how quickly they are separated from their babies. Most women only have 24 hours with their baby before being separated and sent back to prison, a practice that can cause severe emotional and behavioral problems in later life for children. Due to the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) that requires states to terminate parental rights to children who have been in foster care for 15 of the last 24 months, this separation sometimes becomes lifelong.
What can we do for incarcerated pregnant women?
There are a few innovative programs that are reaching out to incarcerated pregnant women to provide education and support. Examples include the Minnesota Doula Project and the Alabama Prison Birth Project, which provide doula support to pregnant inmates. Some prisons have started providing lactation rooms to promote breastfeeding, where women can go to pump milk that is sent to their babies. Some states provide prison-based nursery programs that house mothers and their newborns in special units, and Massachusetts allows mothers to keep their infants with them for up to 24 months in correctional residential programs in the community. Advocating for these programs to be more widespread – or being trained as a doula if you live in a state where these exist – would be a big step forward.
Because of the high percentage of women who are incarcerated on drug-related charges, finding ways to treat addiction is also crucial. According to the PIPS Project, there are an estimated 8,000 admissions of pregnant women with opioid use disorder into prisons and jails each year, but long-term treatment using medication is still uncommon.
As one mother in the Tutwiler documentary poignantly said, “A lot of us have been abused our entire lives. And we enter into relationships of abuse, and then DHR [Alabama Department of Human Resources] wants to step in and say we can’t have our children because they’re going to enter into relationships of abuse. Well, help us, you know? Don’t just throw us off into prison or take our children. Actually help us.”
2. Pregnant teens in foster care are often separated from their children because there is no one willing to care for them together.
Teens in foster care are twice as likely to become pregnant as their peers, and 11 times more likely to lose custody of their child within the first week of life. In order for them to stay together, they must find a foster home that agrees to take in both the mother and the baby, which is uncommon. If that does not happen, they are placed in separate foster homes. This separation, as previously noted, is detrimental to the baby’s development, and also creates additional trauma for the teen, who has likely already had a fair share.
What can we do for pregnant or parenting teens in foster care?
One big step would be becoming a foster parent who is willing to house pregnant teens, and both mother and baby after birth.
We can also donate to organizations that are working to support youth in foster care, and advocate for more programs that are specifically designed to serve pregnant and parenting youth in foster care. St. Anne’s in Los Angeles offers one such program, which aims to keep mothers and babies together while providing services to help mothers heal from trauma, transition to adulthood, and keep their children safe and healthy.
3. A mother cannot apply for child support until after a baby is born.
Pro-choice advocates have fairly pointed out the hypocrisy of this, because if we are going to acknowledge that a baby is a person from the moment of conception, that means a father is a father from that moment, as well.
Pregnant women face many additional financial burdens, from the cost of prenatal care and nutrition to the hospital bills for giving birth, but right now there is no guarantee that the father of the child they are carrying will be legally required to assist with those costs.
What can we do about child support laws?
Advocate for Congress to pass the recently proposed bills that work to address this issue. These include the Providing for Life Act, which includes incentives for states to establish rules requiring the father to cover half of a woman’s pregnancy costs and strengthens child support enforcement. Similarly, Unborn Child Support Act would require states to apply child support obligations to the time period during pregnancy.
4. Closures of maternity wards in low-income areas are creating “maternity deserts.”
The New York Times recently reported on the trend of hospitals deciding to close their maternity wards when they run into financial stress. This is particularly the case in low-income communities, where there is no financial gain in providing those services since Medicaid does not pay hospitals as well as private insurers do.
While this happens in cities like Washington D.C., the trend that The New York Times was noticing is particular to rural and tribal communities. According to one study in Louisiana, women living in these “maternity desserts” are three times more likely to die during pregnancy or during the year after giving birth.
What can we do to alleviate “maternity deserts”?
We can support organizations that specifically reach out to the underserved populations who are most impacted by these closures, such as the Ttáwaxt Birth Justice Center on the Yakama Nation Reservation, which provides women with pre- and post-natal care that is based in Native culture. Another example includes Abide Women’s Health Services in Dallas, Texas, which works to combat the disparities in Black maternal and infant health. We can also hold Catholic hospitals accountable when they choose to close maternity wards in underserved communities.
5. Many pregnant college students do not know their rights under Title IX.
While Title IX guarantees women equal access to education, there is no guarantee that those rights are communicated to students or faculty.
Currently, the Department of Education only recommends – but does not require – that schools “make clear that prohibited sex discrimination covers discrimination against pregnant and parenting students.” As a result, many students still lack the resources needed to practically carry a pregnancy to term. Plus, once a child is born, the majority of residence halls do not allow children in them, which means that students can have a difficult time finding housing (and childcare) while they are in classes.
Catholic colleges are not immune to this issue. As FemCatholic reported in 2022, only 16 of the 29 Catholic colleges who responded to us (we reached out to 180) said that they were aware of at least one pregnant student on their campus in the past year. Of course, that does not mean that pregnancies are not occurring – only that the students who do become pregnant likely drop out before telling anyone, choose to end the pregnancy, or struggle through the journey of being a pregnant and parenting college student without accessing the resources available to them.
What can we do for pregnant and parenting college students?
There are some policies in the works – or which were recently passed – that have aimed to address this issue.
In Texas, two bills went into effect on September 1: Senate Bill 412 enshrined federal protections for pregnant women and parenting college students into Texas state law, and Senate Bill 459 offered priority class registration for parenting college students.
On a national level, proposed updates to Title IX passed by the Biden administration include a requirement that any employee of the school who learns of a student's pregnancy must provide them with information about how to contact the Title IX Coordinator, who must then provide the student with information about a voluntary leave of absence with reinstatement of academic status; a clean, private space for lactation; and other available resources to prevent discrimination. In addition, the previously mentioned Providing for Life Act includes the “Pregnant Students' Rights Act” which requires schools to ensure expecting moms are told about all of the resources available to them.
On a school by school basis, there are some programs out there that we can support and also advocate for expansion to other colleges.
One example at a secular university is the Baby Steps program at Auburn University, which provides housing, support, and community for pregnant and parenting students. The organization is currently raising money to start a program at the University of Alabama, as well. Two Catholic schools with similar longstanding programs are the College of St. Mary in Nebraska and MiraVia residence on the campus of Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina.
The extensive list of difficulties facing women and families in our country can feel daunting, and I know I often have a hard time knowing where to start when I want to help. I hope that this list can provide a few ideas of concrete ways to advocate for greater justice and to donate our time or money to organizations that are committed to helping women welcome new life.