“You can say it. Abortion”*: Reproductive Justice in Orange is the New Black

By Morgan Hopkins

(Warning: Some spoiler alerts)

I rejoined Netflix. After a long absence (read: boycott) when Netflix changed their pricing policies, I broke down and reactivated my membership. Why, you ask? Orange is the New Black (OITNB).

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For those of you who haven’t binge-watched it yet, OITNB is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir about her time spent in the Danbury Federal Correctional Facility. Full disclosure: I have not read the memoir and cannot speak to how accurately the show depicts Kerman’s real-life experiences. I also want to acknowledge that there are important critiques of the show, including how it reinforces racial stereotypes, reproduces stereotypes that women lie about sexual assault, and the general relaxed attitude towards violence against women who are incarcerated. These are all valid critiques and I do not intend to overlook them in my following praise for the show.

The full spectrum of reproductive justice issues throughout the first season drew me in above any other exciting aspect of the show. More full disclosure: I work at a reproductive justice (RJ) organization so I may or may not see RJ issues everywhere I go. The audience witnesses the characters consider abortion (both as inmates and in flashbacks to their lives before prison), experience unplanned pregnancy and go through childbirth while incarcerated. It is rare that a show explores the reproductive justice spectrum so fully.

One of the storylines is about Daya, a Latina inmate, has a consensual relationship and falls in love with a young white prison guard. As the flu spreads through the prison, Daya is convinced she must just have what everyone else has until her mother, also an inmate, tells her matter-of-factly, “You’re pregnant”. Because her boyfriend could go to jail for having sex with an inmate—inmates cannot give consent—Daya attempts to self-abort.

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She learns later that the inmate who gave her the supposed abortifacient knew all along it wouldn’t work. Daya’s mother urges her to keep the child, in one of the first bonding scenes we see between the mother and daughter. (Sidenote: so far, the audience has not learned much else about other inmates who may have children. Three percent of women in federal prisons are pregnant when admitted, so it’s possible that some of the characters are parents.) The first season ends with Daya further along in her pregnancy and developing a cover story for how she got pregnant. This storyline speaks to the lack of access (despite that people who are incarcerated still have the constitutional right to have an abortion) in the prison system, as well as the childbirth experience Daya is soon to encounter.

As the audience simultaneously learns about Daya’s pregnancy, we also witness another inmate, Daya’s bunkmate, go into labor. We see her walk around the prison to alleviate the labor pains and wait until the prison guards determine she’s far enough along to go to the hospital. She has no agency or access in determining her childbirth experience. While we do not witness her birthing experience in the hospital, we can assume that she was shackled during delivery. People can be shackled during labor and delivery in all but 13 states. When she returns shortly after, it becomes clear that the character experienced the immediate separation that often occurs between infants and their incarcerated mothers after delivery. She remains visibly depressed for much of the rest of the season.

Lastly, the storyline of Pennsatucky, a born-again Christian inmate, explores violence against abortion providers.

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Pennsatucky is serving time for shooting an abortion clinic nurse, who judgmentally commented that Pennsatucky was on her fifth or sixth abortion. When Pennsatucky appears in court, “pro-life” activists have paid her legal fees and cheer as she enters the courtroom. This short scene invites the politically-relevant discussion about the complexities of the abortion debate.

So, why does this all matter? You’re right, it’s just a show after all. But to have, in a popular binge-watched show, a nuanced and complex depiction of the decision to have a child or not; access to abortion services in prisons; the treatment of pregnant people while they are incarcerated; and the childbirth experience in prisons is pretty damn impressive. And if it can open up and allow for real discussions about these issues, even better.

*As said by the main character, Piper Chapman’s, husband when she thinks she’s pregnant before serving her sentence.

For more information on pregnancy-related and abortion healthcare in prison: https://www.aclu.org/maps/state-standards-pregnancy-related-health-care-and-abortion-women-prison-map