I would like to share a concept that I had no clue of before I got pregnant and started paying attention to the what it means to be pregnant in this culture and time. It’s very different from what I thought it was. I had imagined a model where everyone is doing their best to take care of you, medical experts are there to help you have the best experience possible… I thought that it was infinitely better to be in a modern country with access to hospitals and doctors for pregnancy care and childbirth… I thought that living in a wealthy Western nation like the U.S. was as good as it gets in terms of the experience of being pregnant and giving birth. I thought giving birth itself was a pretty terrible ordeal and the only thing that made it bearable was that it could be done in a professional setting, under the direction of professionals, with the help of professionally administered drugs. I thought pregnancy was a risky, dangerous state to be in and that there were all kinds of rules you had to follow, and indeed that the pregnant woman had to be followed and monitored by a medical professional to stay safe. Basically, I thought: thank God for doctors and modern medicine when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth. They save so many women and babies from having terrible experiences and deadly outcomes!
I’ve done a 180.
I learned about birth rape.
It’s a controversial term; some prefer to call it medical assault; but personally I feel it is sexual in nature, as it involves the sexual organs and is directly linked with sex – the birth part of sexuality, not the conception part. This article in the Huffington Post puts it well:
“Rape is really to do with having your body disrespected, contorted against your wishes, without your consent. The way the medical establishment sees it is, when you’re on the hospital bed, you have already given consent. Some men say the same thing about the marital bed, or any bed that you get into with them.”
But by any name, it’s horrible and traumatic and so, so unnecessary. Worst of all, it’s common. Don’t know how many times a friend or relative has told me her birth story and it involved the doctors or nurses doing something that was MEDICALLY UNNECESSARY to her body without her knowledge and/or against her explicit wishes. Of course we’re not talking about taking action in emergency situations without waiting for the patient to sign a form allowing the action. We’re talking medical practitioners routinely breaking women’s waters, “checking” progress (this means inserting their entire hand up the vagina), and more.
In this article, a midwife describes how she unknowingly participated in birth rape. The sad thing is that so few medical practitioners ever come to recognize their role: “You don’t have to look very far to find stories of women who were yelled at, sneered at, made to feel bad somehow (even stupid), forced to lie in bed, physically moved from a comfortable position into an uncomfortable one simply for doctor convenience, given unnecessary vaginal exams, given rough vaginal exams, cut unnecessarily, sutured unnecessarily, not given anesthesia for the suturing, etc. And this can happen even with “nice” midwives and “nice” nurses and “nice” doctors, which is the most troubling fact.”
The thing is, it’s not even that shocking that assault by medical professionals happens during childbirth, when you start to really look at our medical system. It’s not just during labor that women’s bodies are violated: pelvic exams are routinely performed on women under anesthesia, without their consent, and for the sole purpose of giving med students some practice. This article is by a doctor who tells how he, as a medical student, was ordered to (and did) stick his fingers inside a woman’s vagina while she was unconscious. And how it was deemed totally normal for him to do so, despite the fact that he had never met the woman, was not her doctor, and certainly did not have her permission to use her body to gain medical experience.
The point is: Do not maintain the illusion that the way medicine is practiced in this country has any concern for a woman’s rights over her own body. Do not assume that your bodily integrity will be respected, do not assume that your consent will be asked for. Do not assume that medical practitioners always have your and your baby’s best interests in mind. Even if they do, they may be working off outdated and incorrect knowledge of normal pregnancy and childbirth. Or they may be tired, or impatient, or blase, or in a bad mood. They do this birthing stuff day in and day out – they are NOT emotionally invested in the individual woman’s experience. They can’t be, or they’d burn out in a matter of weeks.
I hate to be negative and fear-mongering but the situation merits serious attention. I believe the system is broken. Any woman who takes an active role in her own health and who wants to ensure the best possible birth experience for herself and her baby (and partner too, for that matter) must become aware of the huge failings of the traditional medical paradigm when it comes to birth. Inform yourself; don’t kid yourself that it’ll all be fine if you just leave it to the experts; be your own agent and be prepared to fight for your rights.
This is not how it should be, and it is never a woman’s fault if she didn’t know to become informed and prepared – we should not have to fight to retain control over what happens to our own bodies! But we have to deal with the situation as it is, not as we’d like it to be. All the while, we’ll be working towards a system that respects everyone’s rights to be the ones who make decisions about their own bodies.