The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A woman claims she was denied an abortion while in jail. Now she’s suing for $1.5 million.


A Tennessee woman is seeking $1.5 million from law enforcement officials in a federal lawsuit that claims she was denied access to abortion while incarcerated in a county jail.

Kei’choura Cathey found out she was pregnant in August 2015, about two weeks after she was arrested in Maury County, about 50 miles outside of Nashville. According to a complaint filed in a Tennessee federal court in late December, Maury County Sheriff Bucky Rowland told Cathey that his department would not pay to transport her to a clinic unless the abortion is medically necessary or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.

Through her attorney, Cathey, who was arrested on robbery and murder conspiracy charges, sought to lower her bond. But by the time she was able to pay her bond in January 2016, she was more than halfway into her pregnancy, the complaint said. Abortion past the second trimester is illegal.

Cathey ended up giving birth in April.

Rowland did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post. Cathey’s attorney, Lee Brooks, declined to comment.

The lawsuit claims that denying Cathey’s request inflicted cruel and unusual punishment on her — a violation of the Eighth Amendment. It also alleges violation of Cathey’s right to choose to get an abortion protected under the 14th Amendment.

Rowland, the sheriff’s department and Maury County, which are all named as defendants, showed “deliberate indifference to a serious medical need” by failing to establish policies regarding inmates’ access to abortion, the complaint said.

Oklahoma abortion restrictions blocked

A similar lawsuit was filed in 2015 in Alabama.

A woman sued the sheriff of Lauderdale County, claiming her request for a medical furlough or supervised release to get an abortion was denied. The woman, identified only as Jane Doe in documents, was told she had to obtain a court order. The lawsuit was later dropped after the woman, who was in her first trimester when she was arrested, changed her mind and decided to have the child, according to news media reports.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in the past, has ruled in favor of women who seek abortion while incarcerated.

In 2005, the high court cleared the way for a Missouri prisoner to obtain an abortion by refusing to block a court order to transport her to an outside clinic.

In 2008, the court ruled that an Arizona woman had a constitutional right to obtain an abortion outside the jail. Corrections officials had refused to provide transportation.

Left unaddressed, however, are more specific questions about abortion for inmates, such as who has to pay for related services and whether a court order requiring jails to provide some accommodations is necessary, Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project, told the Tennessean. The Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on those issues.

After months of controversy, Texas will require aborted fetuses to be cremated or buried

Jail and prison policies regarding health care for pregnant inmates who either plan to carry to term or seek an abortion vary across states.

More than half, including the District, have policies specific to inmate pregnancies, according to the ACLU.

The organization has identified 21 states that have policies addressing health care for pregnant inmates, including those who want to get an abortion. These states include Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Maryland and Massachusetts, as well as the District.

Twelve — including Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Maine, Michigan and Tennessee — have policies regarding prenatal health care, but none on abortion, according to the ACLU. Two states, Illinois and Minnesota, have an administrative regulation that addresses access to abortion, but not other pregnancy-related medical needs.

Eight — Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, South Carolina, Wisconsin and Wyoming — don’t appear to have any policies related to pregnancy, according to the ACLU.

On the federal level, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Prisons pay for abortion services if the mother’s life is in danger or if the pregnancy was the result of rape.

Cathey’s lawsuit comes at a time when restricting abortions remains a contentious issue in the country.

In Kentucky, for instance, Gov. Matt Bevin (R) recently signed two bills that place restrictions on abortions. Senate Bill 5 prohibits the procedure at or after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

House Bill 2 requires physicians or technicians to perform ultrasounds, show images to the mother and let her hear the fetus’s heartbeat before a procedure. Proponents of the bill said such steps are necessary for a woman to make an informed decision. The ACLU has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the new legislation.


A convicted killer became the first U.S. inmate to get state-funded gender-reassignment surgery

What abortion could look like in America under Donald Trump

‘Her story is my story’: How a harsh abortion ban has reignited feminism in Poland