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Cruelty in Labor — Sometimes It's Subtle

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Preventing bad birth experiences is about understanding why they happen

Writing for Double X, Henci Goer lists several recent cases of laboring women being mistreated, threatened and/or worse by hospital caretakers. Goer, a nurse, medical writer and author of The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Better Birth, asks why it appears to be OK to strip women of their rights once they’re pregnant. She argues not much has changed since 1959, when the Ladies Home Journal published “Cruelty in the Maternity Ward,” where women talked of the inhumane treatment they suffered in the labor and delivery rooms.

The cases she refers to in her post, many of them covered here at Strollerderby, are, without question, extremes. Is every woman abused by her doctor? Of course not. Are the majority of kids whose moms refuse to sign C-section consent forms whisked off to foster care? No, not even close.

And yet, it’s not hard to find stories of women who felt icky at best, or harmed by their caretakers at worst, during the birth of their kids.

How many of you know someone who underwent a cervical exam without being asked first? Or without even being introduced to the on-call doctor or nurse before he or she snapped on the gloves and started prodding around? Another common complaint is the stealth stripping of membranes or breaking the bag of waters, a factor that contributed to Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s eventual diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Women are often deprived of food and water for many, many hours during labor, despite evidence that both are safe and even necessary. I’ve heard stories of nurses cranking Pitocin just to get mom to submit to an epidural; episiotomies cut without discussion, despite a mother’s wish to consent first and babies given formula, though the parents had specifically declined any bottles. And more, so much more.

Sure, it’s all anecdotal. But the fact that we hear these stories regularly should make us wonder.

What’s baffling, especially, is the reaction to these stories. Our culture pays a lot of lip service to the idea of strong women, gut instinct, mother’s intuition and personal autonomy. Yet when a woman is pregnant — and then ready to give birth — she is expected to be totally submissive to doctors, nurses and hospital protocol. Heaven forbid she ask to be informed and allowed to make a choice. After a traumatic birth, she’s supposed to be thankful that she and her baby are alive and feel nothing about what she experienced. Or, okay, feel something but just don’t kill everyone’s buzz over her pretty new baby.

I think part of the problem is that (1) our births are frequently the first we’ve ever witnessed, and no amount of classes and reading can make it the mundane thing that it is to maternity ward caregivers, and (2) that the doctor-patient relationship is powerfully imbalanced: The doctor is the expert, the patient is not. The two of those things working together make it difficult for the patient to confidently speak up and for the doctor to listen openly. Kudos to those who do!

So while I think it’s important to write about these headline-grabbing, abusive births, I found Goer’s post ultimately unsatisfying because she doesn’t say what it is about the system that allows for these egregious acts — and  more subtle ones — to occur. Or, more importantly, what can be done about it.

I felt exposed, powerless and often frustrated during the hospital birth of my first child (which actually turned out just fine). But I also felt like I had gotten away with something thanks mostly to sheer luck. Because I don’t like to leave important matters up to luck, if I can help it, I chose an (illegal) home birth for my next kid. That, for me and a lot of women, was the perfect solution. But just because home birth is an option for some, doesn’t mean health professionals delivering care in more mainstream settings are off the hook.

Did you experience subtle (or not-so-subtle) mistreatment during your birth(s)?

Photo: Double X

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