Right to Abortion for Jail Inmate, Commonwealth v. J.
We recently represented an inmate in Alleghany County who had been denied access to an abortion. After deciding to terminate her pregnancy, she scheduled an appointment to get an abortion at a local women’s health clinic. Two days before the inmate’s appointment—which was on the final day of her first-trimester—Alleghany Regional Jail staff informed her they would not transport her to get an “elective” abortion. The jail’s policy is that unless an abortion is “medically necessary” to save the inmate’s life, pregnant inmates have to get a court order from the Alleghany Circuit Court for a medical furlough. The hitch? Judges do not sit in the Alleghany Circuit Court every day, and the inmate was unable to get a court order before entering her second trimester of pregnancy.
Virginia prohibits most women’s health clinics from performing second trimester abortions. As a result, women who cannot obtain an abortion during their first trimester must travel long distances to access second trimester abortions (which involve two medical procedures performed on consecutive days, and are considerably more expensive than first-trimester abortions). The inmate retained the ACLU of Virginia to advocate for her right to access an abortion. We immediately informed the Alleghany Regional Jail and the Alleghany Circuit Court that the jail’s policies violated our client’s constitutional rights, and obtained a medical furlough allowing our client to travel to the VCU Medical Center in Richmond to get a second-trimester abortion.
Prisons and jails may not deny a woman her constitutional right to have an abortion just because she is incarcerated. Abortions are medically necessary procedures, regardless of why a woman decides to terminate her pregnancy. Moreover, inmates and prisoners are not required to prove their lives are at risk to gain access to an abortion. Prisons and jails may not impose roadblocks to abortion, such as requiring an inmate to hire an attorney and obtain a court order to get one. Such roadblocks unduly burden a woman’s ability to access an abortion, and violate inmates’ and prisoners’ constitutional rights.