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I was glowing when I walked into that eight-week ultrasound appointment. My husband and I had conceived quickly, after two months of trying. After all the things that had gone wrong in my life, finally, something was going just right. And then I saw the look on the technician’s face, an empty look that couldn’t help reflecting the emptiness inside me. There was no heartbeat.
I passed the miscarriage over two days, shaking with pain, my teeth chattering, each clump of blood in the toilet a repeated question: Was that my baby? It was far more emotionally and physically painful than I expected, in part because I was completely unprepared. From what I’d gathered from high school sex ed and popular culture, pregnancy was a given, and miscarriage―well, no one talked about it.
In the aftermath, we tried again, and the months went by with negative tests. I started to worry that something deeper was wrong. But it wasn’t the first time I’d been faced with the specter of infertility.
My first infertility crisis occurred when I was sentenced to 26 years in prison for a murder I didn’t commit. I had been on trial for two years before that verdict was handed down, and until then, I’d naively assumed that the truth couldn’t help but win out, that this was all a misunderstanding.
That guilty verdict shook the foundations of my world. I realized the truth could be overpowered by a false but captivating story, and while I continued to fight for my innocence, appealing my conviction, I no longer had faith that my innocence guaranteed my freedom. I adjusted to a new and sad reality; I started to plan for life that involved 26 years behind bars. From a young age, I’d always imagined myself as a mother. Having children wasn’t even a question. Now I was facing the prospect of being released back into free society at age 46. It wasn’t just my freedom that had been stolen from me; motherhood had been stolen from me. I thought of my own mom, a schoolteacher whose greatest wish for me was that I grow up to be kind. She had poured all her love into me. And I wanted to be just like her. Now where would I pour my own love? Not into a daughter of my own but into the void of my empty future. I didn’t cry. But I did imagine all the ways I might kill myself in that prison cell.
I was definitively acquitted after four years in prison and eight years on trial. Bewildered, I emerged into the free world thinking naively that I was the only person who’d ever been through something so traumatizing and bizarre.
My mom, seeing how alone I felt, dragged me to the Innocence Network Conference. There, I met hundreds of other wrongfully convicted people—mostly Black and brown men—and they became my family. We shared a trauma no one should have to bear.
In this new family of mine, I especially connected with the women I met, who were few and far between.
I truly connected with Stephanie Louden, who was 21 years old when she was convicted of manslaughter in the 1985 death of her college roommate, Stacie Pannell. Stephanie has spent years battling to prove her innocence, to no avail thus far. She ended up serving nearly a decade in prison. Stephanie told me that during her time in prison, “I kept journals and I would write poetry…about my hopes and dreams for having a significant other and having a family,” but “When I got out, I was in my 30s…I was going through perimenopause…so the doctors told me I wasn’t gonna be able to carry.”
This is something that is often not acknowledged when women are imprisoned. Both men and women can lose their most productive years when sentenced to overly long and punitive sentences, but men’s reproductive functions do not expire the way women’s do. When a woman is convicted and given a long sentence, she is effectively sentenced not just to time, but to infertility.
This is especially cruel given the fact that when women are wrongfully convicted, it is often over the death of their own child. Approximately 40 percent of female exonerees were wrongfully convicted of harming their children or other loved ones in their care, according to The Innocence Project. In these cases, the child has often actually died from an accident or disease. Already grieving that loss, these women are then stripped of the possibility of reclaiming motherhood.
Stephanie Louden got lucky. By 2005, she was free, married, and against all odds, pregnant. Still, she thought, I’m nearly 40 years old…What are my chances? Her doctor prescribed her “a lot of prayer and progesterone.” The treatment worked, and she gave birth to her only son, who she calls her “miracle child.”
She’s grateful, but this unacknowledged cost of the conviction she continues to fight haunts her. “They stole years of our young lives,” she told me. “There’s no telling what kind of family I could have had.”
Others aren’t so lucky. Another friend of mine, who I will keep anonymous, was sentenced to life and spent over 15 years in prison before she was exonerated. She went through the gamut of fertility treatments, but she faced miscarriage and failed implantations, and eventually, she gave up.
After my own miscarriage, I reached out to other women to hear their stories. I was so moved by their vulnerability that I made a miniseries about infertility on my podcast Labyrinths. The women spoke anonymously and shared their struggles with miscarriage, in-vitro, adoption, and accepting the unacceptable.
It brought home to me how lucky I am that I was imprisoned for only four years, that I was able to find love, and start trying, and I’m thrilled to say that I’m no longer staring down negative tests and am now enjoying motherhood.
Wanting to have children and facing infertility is a unique form of existential pain. When biology is the cause, all we can do is connect with each other, and realize we’re not alone.
But when criminal justice is the cause, there is something we can do about it. We can support organizations like the Sentencing Project, which is fighting mass incarceration—something that has currently swept up more than 200,000 women in the United States. We can recognize the stakes for getting it right when women are accused of crimes, and we can take their fertility into account during sentencing. A 20-year sentence for a woman isn’t just time—it’s a life that could be, a child waiting for the chance to be born.
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