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Nebraska prison inmate sues state after being blocked from getting an abortion
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Nebraska prison inmate sues state after being blocked from getting an abortion

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A Nebraska prison inmate sued the state on Friday, saying that her right to obtain an abortion has been unconstitutionally blocked by prison officials and that she needs the procedure by next week.

The woman, who was identified as "Jane Roe" in the lawsuit, had offered, through her family, to pay the costs of the medical procedure, as well as the transportation and security expenses from the state's women's prison in York to a clinic in Lincoln. Roe became pregnant weeks before entering prison in February, according to her mother.

The lawsuit said she was blocked from obtaining an abortion by the warden of the prison, citing a prison policy that all large amounts of money deposited in an inmate's cash account — such as the money for the abortion — is frozen for 21 days.

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU of Nebraska, seeks an emergency temporary restraining order so Roe can be transported to an appointment she's made for Tuesday to obtain an abortion.

Roe, the lawsuit said, has also made arrangements to pay Planned Parenthood directly for the procedure, thus sidestepping the 21-day freeze on her prison account. If she is unable to receive an abortion on Tuesday, Roe will be forced to remain pregnant, or risk her health and incur greater financial costs by seeking an abortion later from an Omaha provider who performs abortions up to 22 weeks, said the lawsuit.

“State officials are barring a woman from getting an abortion and forcing her to remain pregnant against her will. It’s wrong and it’s unlawful,” said Scout Richters, a lawyer for the ACLU of Nebraska. “All of us, including our client, have the right to make our own decision about whether and when to become a parent."

The mother of the inmate, who spoke on the condition of not being named, said her daughter became pregnant weeks before she began her prison sentence in February. She said it was a "forced-upon thing," which prompted her to seek an abortion.

The mother said prison officials have been "dragging their feet and wanting to shift the request to someone else's desk" since her daughter filed a grievance, on March 25 or 26, requesting the procedure. Warden Angela Folts-Oberle of the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women in York responded Thursday, denying her request. 

"I feel like (the warden) is making decisions for my daughter that are lifelong decisions," the mother said Thursday. "(My daughter) knows she's in trouble, she's doing her time, but that still doesn't give them the right to make decisions that she doesn't want."

State regulations on an inmate's medical rights appear to ban abortions, but that stands in conflict with court rulings nationally on the subject.

But court rulings have sided with inmates who have sought access to abortions, even though they are behind bars.

A 2005 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Missouri corrections policy that forbid the spending of tax dollars to facilitate an abortion. The court unanimously ruled that the policy violated the inmate's right to a legal abortion, and that the state must provide transportation to a clinic for the procedure.

A national ACLU official cited the Missouri ruling in arguing that Nebraska's rejection of the inmate's request was a "blatant violation of the Constitution."

"Every court to consider this issue has held that the right to abortion survives incarceration. We hope the court will act quickly so that our client can get the care she needs,” said Brigitte Amiri, deputy director at the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project.

The lawsuit filed by the ACLU argues that there are no "penological" reasons, such as security risk or loss of rehabilitation, that would prevent the state from transporting Roe to an abortion clinic, pointing out that the inmate has already been transported for prenatal exams.

The lawsuit requests that a judge order prison officials to also allow Roe to participate in state-required counseling, 24 hours prior to an abortion.

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