criminal justice Original Roe V. Wade Victoria Valenzuela

Thousands on Parole and Probation Face Unique Barriers in Seeking Abortion Care

The recent Supreme Court decision to end Roe v. Wade leaves thousands of women on probation and parole in jeopardy of punishment in accessing abortion care.
Map of the United States showing which states will outlaw abortion now that Roe v. Wade is overturned. Parole and probation population data from the Prison Policy Initiative. Chart by ScheerPost.

By Victoria Valenzuela / Original to ScheerPost

ScheerPost Staff Writer

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade leaves many among the more than 215,600 women on parole and probation in states that ban abortion to face a technical violation that might lead to reincarceration if they travel across state lines for the medical procedure. 

Most people on parole and probation face restrictions not only on on travel but associating with people whose actions could be considered illegal — making it difficult for women with this status to travel out of a state that bans abortion to have the procedure  or even consult with people coordinating abortion care, according to a briefing from the Prison Policy Initiative released June 30.

“Far too many individuals, having been swept into the criminal legal system by laws that criminalize poverty, will now find themselves without recourse for accessing what should be basic healthcare,” read the briefing.

While travel restrictions are not a universal condition of probation and parole, said Wanda Bertram, co-author of the briefing, they are common and standard in many states that are expected to outlaw abortion in the next few months, including Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Idaho and Arkansas. 

“Unless there is significant organizing and push back, we expect that people on probation and parole are going to have an even harder time of getting abortion care than most other people,” Bertram said.

Other states that are expected to outlaw abortion are Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. According to the briefing, the national average for a probation term lasts just under two years, “far too long for the average individual to ‘wait it out’ until they are no longer under supervision and can seek abortion care across state lines.”

The American Probation and Parole Association declined to comment on this story.

Of the U.S. parole and probation population, many are young women from marginalized groups, including Black, Indigenous and other people of color living in economic poverty, said Ximena Casas, a women’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch. Casas said that criminal law will not stop abortions but instead push out women from the health system, where many will end up with an unsafe abortion or  “will have to face an unintended or unwanted pregnancy and…be forced to motherhood,” Casas said. “They might put their life or or health at risk if they ended up not having access to safe services so they will be very impacted in terms of the violations of their human rights.”

While women on parole and probation will rely on permission to travel for an abortion, the decision will be left to the discretion of the officer — or for parole, the respective office — that is managing their case. While there is no prohibition on making a request to travel out of state, Bertram said it is unlikely that many of these requests will be approved due to a predominantly anti-abortion culture in many of these trigger states, or states that have passed laws to immediately ban abortions once Roe v. Wade is overturned. 

“The government is putting them in between a rock and a hard place saying ‘we’re not going to help you, we’re not not going to support, but we are going to criminalize you if you choose to take your healthcare into your own hands,’” Bertram said.

Bertram also said women on parole and probation are disproportionately likely to not be insured or to be struggling to get insurance, already causing greater financial and logistical barriers to getting an abortion.

“What we worry about is people who are under correctional control, not being able to get abortion care because the people who are supervising won’t allow it or because there are just administrative delays involved in in getting exceptions made to the travel restrictions,” Bertram said.

Timely care, particularly operating in a window that is only a matter of weeks, means that any delay could be very consequential, said Christopher Uggen, professor of Sociology, Law, and Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He also said that probation officers are working with a lot of different people and often have considerable authority in their own personal preferences, whether they view something is appropriate to travel for or not. 

“If a probation officer is in charge of 100 people and you need the explicit consent of your probation officer to travel to an appointment that may be very time-sensitive, and maybe a window that’s only open for a short period of time, that sort of delay can cause lifelong harm to the individual,” Uggen said.

“The discretion of an individual probation officer could result in a significant bottleneck and then, as with any other kind of discretionary decision, it could lead to unfairness in how it’s treated,” he added.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, President Joe Biden and Justice Brett Kavanaugh concurrently agreed on the right to interstate travel. However, Uggen said that is just another right that is being withheld from people under correctional supervision, where travel is restricted.

“The first thing that struck me when I read President Biden’s statement and Justice Kavanaugh’s concurring opinions, is that they both talked about the right of travel, our freedom to travel in America,” Uggen said. “They neglected to consider this case in which there are millions of Americans who do not enjoy those rights because they’re under correctional supervision.”

Kelly Briem, a graduate student at Fordham University, is also concerned how about the overturned Roe v. Wade will impact people on parole and probation — mainly because she has been on parole before, so she knows firsthand how restrictive it can be. 

Briem said in an interview that she spent four years on parole, and was sent back into the system twice — first because her parole officer felt she hadn’t served enough time for her sentence and reincarcerated her within 24 hours of her release; the other because she crossed state lines from Connecticut to New York, where she lived, and had to serve nine more months.

According to Briem, the restrictions that women under correctional control will face under the end of Roe v. Wade is only a new trend in an ongoing criminalization of people on parole and probation.

She worries that the end of Roe v. Wade will result in women on parole and probation facing forced birth, forced poverty, and children added to the foster care system. As an advocate with the Beyond Rosie’s Campaign to decarcerate women in New York jails, Briem feels it is important to give women under correctional supervision a higher level of care.

“The women were just voiceless,” Briem said. “Completely voiceless, nobody cares. And I see it time after time again. It’s a different dynamic than it is with the [incarcerated] male population, it’s completely different.”

Caitlin Taylor, an associate professor of sociology and criminology at La Salle University, considers this issue an absolute emergency for women’s rights. 

“Overturning Roe v. Wade is another trend in American history of keeping women as second-class citizens,” Taylor said. “Abortions are healthcare. And we know this country has a terrible history of providing equitable access to healthcare, especially for those who are involved in the criminal legal system.”

She also believes that access to legal abortions are associated with future crime reductions and that when women who may not be emotionally or financially prepared to birth a child are forced to do so, it’s more likely that child will grow into a life of crime.

While many people who are in the correctional system tend to have histories of struggling with chronic illness and not being able to get treatment for that current illness, Bertram said the overturn of Roe v Wade is just going to exacerbate those conditions moving forward.

“Denying abortion access puts a lot of people in a difficult position and really shows that the prison system did not care that much about getting quality health care to to people who are inside,” Bertram said.

Uggen said that moments of crisis like this underscore the long-standing issue that  the U.S. doesn’t have a human rights understanding of health care generally.

“This is a vulnerable population that we really need to keep top of mind as we craft policy and consider actions to protect their rights.”

Victoria Valenzuela
Victoria Valenzuela

Victoria Valenzuela is managing editor at ScheerPost and a graduate student at the University of Southern California studying specialized journalism focusing on investigations and social justice. She has worked with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, BuzzFeed News, ProPublica and the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership and Policy. Valenzuela covers criminal justice issues.

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