Opinion: California’s support for reproductive rights still stops at its prison walls

Buffy Wicks and Felicia Espinosa | SFChronicle

If you live in California, you probably think that our state is beyond the medieval assaults on reproductive rights that we see in the rest of the country.

But did you know that California is home to the world’s largest women’s prison? And that a California district attorney filed murder charges against two women — Adora Perez and Chelsea Becker — for experiencing stillbirths, allegedly caused by drug use?

The truth is, mass incarceration and the lingering War on Drugs are some of the biggest threats to reproductive justice — no matter what state or county you live in. California is no exception. Our criminal justice system has long been used to control women and gender-nonconforming people’s bodies. From 1997 to 2013 the state forcibly sterilized nearly 1,400 mostly brown and Black incarcerated individuals. And while that abominable practice has ended, others remain.

California’s new Attorney General Rob Bonta is now in charge of this system. As a legislator, Bonta was at the forefront of the effort to pass AB 732, improving access to medical care for incarcerated pregnant people. As AG, he can continue this leadership by approaching his new role with reproductive justice front of mind. That means defending every person’s right to make decisions about their body in a safe and supportive environment.

Bonta can start by working to overturn convictions obtained by reactionary prosecutors who target pregnant people, as well as changing the pervasive punitive mind-set that enables them.

This mind-set is currently embodied by Kings County District Attorney Keith Fagundes, who in 2018 prosecuted Adora Perez for her stillbirth, in what was widely acknowledged as a clear defiance of state law. Perez initially received inadequate legal counsel and pleaded guilty to manslaughter for losing her fetus, a crime that doesn’t exist in California. She is currently three years into an inexcusable 11-year sentence.

Just one year later, Fagundes, emboldened by his success, imprisoned a second woman, Chelsea Becker, under nearly identical circumstances. Becker was held in jail for over a year on a jaw-dropping $2 million bail. She has since recently been released on her own recognizance while she awaits trial.

The charges against Perez and Becker are a fundamental threat to all Californians. Organizations like the ACLU have warned that if people can be imprisoned for stillbirths, then what prevents them from being criminalized for pregnancy loss resulting from not wearing a seat belt, not getting robust prenatal care, or working a stressful or physically strenuous job?

Before he left office to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra filed briefs in Perez’s and Becker’s cases, arguing that under California’s law, women cannot be prosecuted for losing their pregnancies. We’re hopeful that Bonta will continue where Becerra left off, fighting on behalf of Perez and Becker.

But he should go further.

We need an attorney general who will push back against prosecutors who impose draconian sentences over what should be health care issues. Absent reform, the punishments of people like Perez and Becker could scare others away from the getting the care and support that they need.

On the state level, we grossly misallocate resources, devoting a staggering amount to prosecution and incarceration — almost $20 billion in the governor’s recent budget — while leaving programs that provide health care, housing, and promote economic stability woefully underfunded.

If we want better pregnancy outcomes, we need policies that address poverty, houselessness, food insecurity, and other inequities plaguing communities across California.

Our misplaced budget priorities are felt most profoundly in low-income Black and brown communities — the very same communities that are most subjected to targeted policing and disproportionate sentencing. In Alameda County, for example, between 2013 and 2017 Black infant mortality was 8.7 per 1,000 births compared to 3 per 1,000 in the white population.

Rebalancing the scales will take a coordinated effort.

To protect reproductive rights in California, we need to shift the state’s mind-set from, “How can we punish this person?” to “How can we support them?”

Freeing Adora Perez and Chelsea Becker is a start in that direction, and toward ensuring California lives up to its reputation as a reproductive justice champion.

Written By Buffy Wicks and Felicia Espinosa.

Assemblymember Buffy Wicks represents the East Bay in the California Assembly. Felicia Espinosa is the Central Valley Director of Advocacy at Root & Rebound, which provides economic wellness, social, and legal services to systems-impacted women of color in the Central Valley.


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