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Bad Birth Experiences Need a New Name

Some birth activists are calling bad birth experiences — the kind where laboring women are pushed around by arrogant doctors and high-handed L&D nurses — “birth rape.”

I really, really hope this phrase does not catch on.

I’m a rape survivor, and a mom. My first labor ended not with the idyllic home birth I’d dreamed of, but with an emergency transport to the nearest hospital, where I was poked, prodded and medicated with only the vaguest pass at getting my consent. I spent days in the hospital fighting with nurses over everything from when I could hold my baby to what needles they could stick her with.

Both the assault and the hospital stay are difficult memories that I’ll probably carry with me always. If I had a chance to write the perfect life for myself, there would be no rape and no hospital birth.

But. A difficult birth, even one that includes non-consensual medical procedures, is not the same thing as a rape.

I would never claim that a woman being subjected to medical procedures she did not consent to while in labor is acceptable. It just isn’t rape.

I’m not going to say that rape is so much worse. No one wins in a game of misery poker, trying to compare one trauma to another. A traumatic birth leaves real and deep scars. Birth can trigger traumatic memories and feelings for abuse survivors. Women with no history of abuse can be left with painful psychological wounds, especially if they are mistreated by a doctor they trusted to help them.

My problem is that by conflating a bad birth with sexual violence, we do a disservice to survivors of both experiences.

To help women heal after trauma, and to support the activists and organizations that work to protect us, we need to be having nuanced, honest conversations about these experiences. Throwing the word rape into a conversation about birthing practices is like dropping a grenade. It shuts down productive conversation.

Women who’ve been violated by the medical industry are genuinely hurt and often righteously angry. They’ve been made to feel powerless, disrespected and dehumanized. They deserve a mechanism to hold the doctors who hurt them accountable, a healing space to recover from the trauma and a way to talk about what happened so that we can all work to prevent it in the future.

Calling it “birth rape” serves none of that. The word rape is, for better or worse, taken. It refers to a non-consensual sexual encounter. Women who’ve been through a traumatic birth deserve their own language, not a term that suggests they’re a subset of rape survivors.

Photo: dearbarbie

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