According to AL.com, an Alabama mom just won a major battle over obstetric violence last week — to the tune of 16 million dollars. Caroline Malatesta, a mother of four, sued Brookwood Women’s Center in Birmingham back in 2012, over the disturbing circumstances surrounding her son Jack’s birth. In her suit, Malatesta claimed that her wrists were grabbed out from under her by a nurse, and she was flipped onto her back from her hands and knees (a common birthing position) as her baby’s head emerged. But sadly, it gets worse: As Malatesta struggled to get off her back, a nurse pushed her baby’s head back inside her body for six minutes because the doctor was not yet in the room.
As a result of the mistreatment, the Alabama mom has since suffered an immeasurable amount. As AL.com reports, Malatesta has a permanent nerve injury called Pudendal Neuralgia, cannot have future children, and can no longer have sex. She lives with chronic pain, takes daily medications, and suffers from panic attacks due to her trauma from the events. And as Malatesta told Yahoo News just last year, the events of what happened during her son’s delivery four years ago have turned her family life “upside down.”
After a two-week trial, the jury found that Brookwood had not only violated the standard of maternity care, but had participated in “reckless misinterpretation of fact” through their advertising campaigns, which had lured Malatesta into delivering there in the first place. The mother of four reportedly switched hospitals halfway through her pregnancy after seeing literature emphasizing women’s choices during birth, such as the ability to move during labor rather than being tethered to a fetal monitor.
As Yahoo reports, Malatesta had previously had three medicated births — feet in stirrups, flat on her back — and she was glad to finally have more options at Brookside. But once she arrived in labor, Malatesta learned that none of the advertised birthing options were actually available to her. The false advertisements had also mentioned the option of birthing tubs, though it was later found that the hospital rarely allowed water births, and even instituted a complete ban on them internally as of January 2013 — yet it would be another three years before the ads stopped running.
During the trial, Alabama law did not allow mention of other maltreatment cases at Brookwood, but that didn’t stop women from stepping forward in droves, saying that they too had fallen same bait and switch advertising scam that lured Malatesta in — only to be met with harsh treatment and dangerous practices.
While the circumstances surrounding this case are both extreme and rare in the U.S., they do highlight a growing issue in the state of Alabama — where birth options are rather bleak to begin with, and at least one study has listed it among one of the worst states to have a baby. Many mothers-to-be feel forced to cross state lines seeking better choices in maternity care and care that is evidence-based. While nationwide, rates of unnecessary interventions are quite high across the board, in Alabama specifically, choices in childbirth are practically unheard of and the c-section rate staggering — Alabama has the seventh-highest c-section rate in the country. (Brookwood’s last reported Cesarean rate was 43.8%, though at some Alabama hospitals it has reached as much as 57%.)
Brookwood’s advertising campaign almost seemed to take advantage of the knowledge that women’s choices in birth are undoubtedly important, but the hospital failed to do the grunt work of actually providing those choices. Their staff wasn’t trained in unmedicated birth or even how to provide respectful care to a laboring mother who does not wish to labor on her back with constant fetal monitoring (both practices are not evidence-based and lead to a higher rate of unnecessary interventions like cesarean birth).
Cristen Pascucci, childbirth advocate and founder of Birth Monopoly, has followed supported Malatesta through several years of litigation and was present to offer support during the trial and the reading of the verdict.
“Everyone just burst into tears. Everyone was crying, even a lot of the jurors… everybody’s still in shock,” Pascucci tells Babble about the emotional moment. “Alabama juries do not give out verdicts like this very often … but this jury stuck to their guns. They were not letting Brookwood get away with this fraud.”
Pascucci also expressed how it’s often difficult for women to raise their voices about the ways they feel they might’ve been wronged during delivery — a sentiment that Malatesta herself echoed in a video posted to Facebook the day after the verdict came out, saying, “It wasn’t until I knew I had a permanent injury that I even felt like I could talk about it.”
Thankfully for her own sake — and for the sake of women all over Alabama and the rest of the U.S. — she did speak up. And not only that, she fought for her rights and in the process, took a stand about those afforded to all birthing mothers.
As an advocate for better maternity care, Pascucci believes this win is already helping Alabama women to speak out and share their stories so that this doesn’t happen to others.
Pascucci tells Babble:
“It’s removed this veil of silence. Women are talking to each other. You couldn’t pull a fraud like this unless women felt silenced and shamed. And I think women now are not going to allow that to happen if they just open their mouths and stand up for themselves.”
While it needs to be said that plenty of health care providers out there are doing a wonderful job of giving women the caring, quality, and respectful treatment they so deserve during pregnancy and childbirth, the fact remains that mother-centered birth — a birthing experience that considers a woman’s individual body, thoughts, and feelings about her birthing choices — is something all women deserve to be afforded in every state, hospital, and birthing center. And it’s something we should be talking more about.
Luckily, stories like Malatesta’s — though upsetting and at times difficult to read — remind women everywhere of the treatment they deserve and the rights they should never, ever compromise, no matter what.