Wilson Center Experts

Rachel Roth

Fellow
United States Studies

Expertise:
North America
;
United States
Affiliation:
Assistant Professor of Political Science and Women's Studies, Washington University in St. Louis
Wilson Center Project(s):
"Under Lock and Key: Women's Reproductive Rights in U.S. Jails and Prisons"
Term:
Aug 01, 2002
-
May 01, 2003

This project engages my interests as a scholar of reproductive politics and as a citizen of the United States who has watched our prison population swell to the largest in the world. My first book examined the ways that institutions such as corporations, hospitals, courts, and legislatures undermine women's equality by creating rights for fetuses. Here, I shift my attention to reproductive conflicts between women and the state in a different set of political institutions: jails and prisons.Several distinct developments piqued my interest in the politics of incarceration and their implications for gender and race equality. Shortly before I started graduate school in 1989, Jennifer Johnson became the first woman to be convicted of "delivering drugs to a minor" through her umbilical cord. Johnson was a young African American woman who had used crack cocaine during her pregnancy, establishing the profile of the vast majority of women to be prosecuted for alleged crimes of "fetal abuse" throughout the nation. Because police were arresting some women while they were still pregnant, I looked into health conditions for women in jail and prison. Although the dismal results are not terribly surprising in retrospect, this research made a lasting impression on me. Later that same year the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C. found that nearly one in four African American men under age 30 was under some form of criminal justice supervision, that is, behind bars, on probation, or on parole. In 1995, the Sentencing Project reported the number had climbed to one in three. Both these trends share a common source in the "war on drugs."Finally, I have collected news stories for several years about sheriffs and even a few judges who obstruct women in jail from getting abortions.The U.S. role as world leader in incarceration and the over-representation of the nation's poor, especially poor African American and Latina/o women and men--the vast majority of whom are parents of children under age 18--pose considerable challenges to achieving a just society. While a growing number of activists, NGOs, journalists, and academics are paying attention to women in prison, we still know very little about the specific penal policies that govern their lives, especially at the state and local levels. How do jails and prisons shape womenÕs access to reproductive health care? How do they constrain or facilitate women's ability to maintain relationships with their children, whether born or left behind during incarceration? What is the political and constitutional terrain in which they operate? My goals are to map out this policy universe and to critically examine the way the state treats those women whom it has deprived of liberty, exploring reproductive control as a form of punishment.
 

Education

B.A. (1987) Women's Studies, University of California at Santa Cruz; Ph.D. (1997) Political Science, Yale University
 

Experience

  • Assistant Professor of Political Science and Women's Studies, Washington University in St. Louis, 1999-present
     
  • Lecturer and Research Associate, Government Department, Smith College, 1997-99
     
  • Five College Women's Studies Research Center Associate, Mt. Holyoke College, 1994-95

Expertise

Women's rights and legal status in the United States, including discrimination based on race, gender, and sexuality; reproductive health policy; "fetal rights" politics and policy; women in prison

Project Summary

The number of women behind bars in the United States has increased more than five-fold since 1980. Poor women of all races and especially poor African American women make up the fastest growing segments of our nation' s incarcerated population; these are the same groups that have

historically been subject to intrusive forms of government intervention in reproduction. By illuminating the nature and scope of state authority over pregnancy, abortion, and parenthood in the prison context, this project will explore the meaning of "reproductive freedom" for women who are literally not free.

Major Publications

  • "The Perils of Pregnancy: Ferguson v. City of Charleston." Feminist Legal Studies (forthcoming 10(2), 2002)
     
  • Making Women Pay: The Hidden Costs of Fetal Rights. Cornell University Press, 2000
     
  • "Women, Work, and the Politics of Fetal Rights." Women Transforming Politics: An Alternative Reader, eds. Cathy Cohen, Kathleen Jones, and Joan Tronto. New York University Press, 1997

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