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Even Women in Jail Are Entitled to the Right to Choose

Photograph by Twenty20

When Kei’choura Cathey found out she was pregnant in August 2015, she had already spent two weeks in a county jail, arrested on robbery and murder conspiracy charges. The 29-year-old wanted to terminate the pregnancy, but the county sheriff told her that his department wouldn't pay to transport her to a clinic unless the abortion was medically necessary or the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.

Through her attorney, she even tried to have her bond reduced so she could go to a clinic to obtain an abortion. However, by the time she was able to pay her bond in January 2016, her pregnancy was too far along and she was no longer able to obtain a legal abortion. Cathey gave birth in April 2016.

Now, she's suing the county sheriff for $1.5 million for denying her the right to seek an abortion, thereby forcing her to have a child she would not have chosen to give birth to had she not been incarcerated and free to seek medical care.

Although neither Sheriff Bucky Rowland nor Cathey's attorney, Lee Brooks, have commented on the lawsuit, the suit claims that denying Cathey's request for help in obtaining an abortion inflicted cruel and unusual punishment on her—a violation of the Eighth Amendment which states that "excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted." The lawsuit also alleges that her right to choose to get an abortion, which is protected under the 14th Amendment, was also violated.

The complaint also states that the defendants (Sheriff Rowland, the sheriff's department and Maury County) all showed a "deliberate indifference to a serious medical need" by failing to establish policies in order to deal with an inmates' access to abortion.

It seems that Cathey's case may hold water and the new mother might get the millions she is looking for in damages, since a similar lawsuit was filed in Alabama in 2015.

In another previous case, a woman sued the sheriff of Lauderdale County after her request for a medical furlough or supervised release to get an abortion was denied. Identified only as Jane Doe in the official documents, she was told that she had to obtain a court order. She was also in her first trimester when she was arrested, but later dropped the lawsuit and decided to have the child.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court has established a past precedent of ruling in favor of women who seek an abortion while incarcerated.

Recent cases appeared in 2005 and 2008. The first in which the high court allowed a Missouri prisoner to obtain an abortion by refusing to block a court order that required them to transport her to an outside clinic. In the 2008 case, a court ruled that an Arizona woman had the constitutional right to obtain an abortion outside of jail, thereby forcing corrections officials to provide transportation, after they had previously refused.

Complications regarding such cases arise largely due to varying jail and prison policies regarding the health care for pregnant inmates—some of whom plan to carry to term, while others seek an abortion. Such policies differ from state to state and, according to the ACLU, more than half (including the District of Columbia) have some sort of policy specific to inmate pregnancies.

For Cathey, her lawsuit comes during a particularly contentious time for abortion rights and restrictions. Previous precedent may set the stage for her to win, but only time (and the courts) will tell.

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