It is a poignant story for Easter weekend — when Christians around the world remember the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ: when pain and anguish give way to new life and fresh hope; to captives set free.
Massachusetts is poised to become the 18th state banning the use of restraints on prisoners during labor and delivery, except for cases in which the prisoner poses a safety or flight risk. This weekend’s issue of the Boston Globe Magazine featured stories of pregnant women in the state’s prisons.
Bills passed in February by the Massachusetts state House and Senate also set “minimum requirements for prenatal and postpartum care,” including education on prenatal nutrition and screening for postpartum depression.
Despite the fact that the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology frowns upon the shackling of pregnant women (it is “rarely necessary,” they point out, as any person who has either labored or accompanied a laboring woman probably knows), the majority of states still permit the practice.
(Some years ago, the New York Times reported horrifying stories of inmates injured — physically as well as psychologically — by giving birth while restrained.)
The Boston Globe Magazine story also highlighted the work of prison doulas, who volunteer their services to pregnant inmates before and during labor — as well as after:
“at the jail, Elson and other doulas visit postpartum moms within days. ‘In some ways, that’s the most important part of our job, when they go back to jail without their baby,’ says Elson. ‘We just sit with them . . . We just sit with them.’ What more is there to do?”
Last year — when the Board of Corrections in Virginia set about banning the practice of shackling female inmates, I wrote for Christianity Today:
If the Bible—uncomfortably to many modern ears—locates the womb as the place where humans begin to fail or seems to assume that all women must become mothers to be complete, it also understands that the womb is the seat of tremendous creative power, justice, and compassion; that it is but an imperfect picture of the kind of self-giving love God has for God’s creatures: a nourishing, protective, merciful, compassionate love.
Spiritual writer Kathleen Norris wrote of “the brave way in which women consent to give birth to creatures who will one day die.” To bring life into this world—to co-create with God—is sacrificial, self-giving work: it is painful, important work that both engenders and elicits compassion. A woman giving birth deserves and requires every ounce of tenderness that’s available.
There are, in this world, so many situations that look like Good Friday with no hope of Easter Sunday — anguish and pain without the promise of deliverance: an incarcerated woman suffering and struggling to bring forth new life only to return to her cell, still bleeding and hurting, with empty arms. Carrying such a burden alone — without the saving grace of compassion and empathy — is a heavy load indeed.
This is why Christians find such hope in Christ’s suffering and resurrection: not only is there the promise that suffering will give way to glory, there is the understanding that Jesus empathizes with our suffering; that he has already suffered the worst of evils and emerged victorious, speaking peace and setting captives free.
Those offering empathy to the oft-forgotten — women giving birth behind bars — speak, through their actions, that same word of peace, a word that gives Easter morning hope to a world that’s too often chained to injustice, indifference, and seemingly meaningless suffering.