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Roanoke Times.com: Giving Birth in Chains Print

By Heather Rice

Created: Monday, February 14, 2011

Rice, of Fairfax, is a third-year student at George Mason University School of Law and associate director of policy at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.

On Feb. 4, the Virginia General Assembly's House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee effectively defeated a bill that would have protected the dignity of the sacred moment of welcoming a new life into this world.

Introduced by Del. Patrick Hope, HB 1488 would have prohibited the egregious practice of shackling female prisoners during childbirth. By defeating the bill, the committee neglected an opportunity to uphold the sanctity of life by protecting the infant and ensuring the sacredness of its birth. To restrain or shackle renders a mother and her child more vulnerable to complications, and no baby should be brought into this world with its mother in chains.

I testified in support of the bill in my capacity as associate director of policy at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, an interfaith membership organization made up of 300 religious groups from across the country committed to ending torture everywhere. For me, this is not just a professional issue, but as an evangelical, a deeply held personal one as well.

The sanctity of human life is first described in Genesis: "So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him." My faith teaches that all newborns bear within themselves the divine image, the image of the Christ child.

Shackling during childbirth strips away the sanctity of this moment of welcoming a new life into the world. It also severely limits the extent to which doctors are able to care for the mother and the unborn child.

Obstetricians recognize that women who are in labor need to be able to freely move around and to assume different positions throughout the birthing process. During the final stages of labor, it is especially 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.

Though I was pleased to see the bill pass unanimously through subcommittee where I testified, I was sad to hear some of the things said in the course of debate during the full committee hearing.

The Department of Corrections director defended Virginia prisons' use of restraints on pregnant women during childbirth on the basis that they do not use one of the practice's most gruesome forms, four-point shackling, by which women in labor are chained around their wrists, ankles and belly.

One delegate even argued that all pregnant female prisoners should ordinarily be shackled during childbirth and that this requirement should be dropped only in exceptional circumstances.

This position is without merit. The truth is that pregnant women in labor pose a very low risk to prison personnel. Most are nonviolent offenders. In the 10 states where anti-shackling legislation similar to this bill has passed, there have been no instances of violence or flight. While this bill generally would have prohibited the shackling of women during labor and post-partum recovery, an exception was provided for a situation in which a jailor found "extraordinary" reasons to believe the woman may seriously harm others or herself or is a flight risk.

Rather than choosing to protect the sacredness of birth and safeguard infants born in jail, the committee defeated the bill. Fortunately, Chairwoman Beverly Sherwood did agree to write a letter to the DOC recommending they look further into the issue. I hope they do the right thing.

Most of us associate the moment of birth 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 and adoration lighting up her face. Shawanna Lumsey of Arkansas remembers a very different experience. She was shackled during all but 10 minutes of her labor and delivery. After her son's birth, Lumsey's legs were immediately reshackled to the bedposts and as a direct result, her pelvis never returned to its original position. She had to undergo major surgery in which a piece of her hip was used to fuse her pelvis back together.

No mother or child should have to go through the pain and suffering that Lumsey and her child experienced. Our humanity and our democracy are degraded by the willful defense of this cruel act. As an evangelical and as a resident of Virginia, I am troubled that the committee took a pass on a valuable opportunity to uphold the fundamental sanctity of life.