November 14, 2008

Student studies relationship between pregnancy, prison

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School of Medicine student Kristy Kummerow stands outside the Davidson County Female Correctional Development Center, where she studied the rates of pre-incarceration unplanned pregnancies among the inmates. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Student studies relationship between pregnancy, prison

A third-year student at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine is using her Emphasis Research Project to tackle the problem of unintended pregnancies among an often overlooked population — incarcerated women.

Unintended pregnancies affect women of all races, ethnic groups and socioeconomic classes in the United States, but for numerous reasons, certain population groups have higher rates of unintended pregnancy than others.

The Emphasis Program allows VUSM students to pursue a research project of their choosing. During the summer between her first and second years, Kristy Kummerow made daily visits to the Davidson County Female Correctional Development Center and performed a survey of more than 100 women inmates.

She documented a high rate of pre-incarceration unplanned pregnancies among the inmates, with 86 percent reporting at least one unplanned pregnancy in her past, and some reporting as many as nine.

Kummerow found that inmates with unintended pregnancies have higher rates of mental illness, substance abuse and lack of contraception use, due to their own or their partner's anti-contraception attitudes.

More than half of the women were found to be at high risk for a future unintended pregnancy.

According to Kummerow, an unintended pregnancy — coupled with lack of a support structure to deal with the difficult and important decisions surrounding the pregnancy — can lead to a downward spiral for the woman involved.

“Helping this population of women prevent future unintended pregnancies would be one giant step toward their rehabilitation as productive members of society,” she said.

Potential solutions include education and empowerment of women inmates to set and work toward goals for the future, including preventing unplanned pregnancies. Additionally, women may benefit from jail-based provision of family planning services upon release, Kummerow said.

She plans to conduct further research at the Davidson County Women's Jail on how to plan and implement these strategies.

“Correctional institutions can serve a critical role in arming inmates with these much-needed resources and tools,” she said.

Davidson County's women's' jail has already made steps in this direction, providing educational programs to women in cooperation with the Metro Public Health Department and several community-based organizations.