“‘Old wives’ tales,’ says the Oxford dictionary, are ‘trivial stories, such as are told by garrulous old women.’ It is significant that no one ever talks about ‘old husbands’ tales’ or ‘old doctors’ tales.’ Women are blamed instead. It is implied that there is poison in their speech and that the only safe thing to do is remain silent. The experiences that women share with other women are thus rejected and trivialized…In reality, it is not other women who instill and fuel anxiety in most pregnant women, but the medical system itself.” This quote from the 1980’s book, Giving Birth, by Sheila Kitzinger, remains strikingly relevant today. When women in the United States today enter the hospital to give birth, many experience some form of institutional violence. They may not explicitly define it as violence, but listening to their stories provides a disheartening picture of maternity care today.
What kinds of violence occur in the birth place? Here are a few possible examples of “normative abuse” women may experience when giving birth in U.S. hospital setting
• Restriction of movement
• Restriction of nourishment
• Domination by those in positions of authority—must obey even when it is against her own best interests.
• Routine, forced interventions such as IVs
• Repeated, possibly painful, vaginal examinations by many different people
• Denial of option for VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean)
• At the most extreme example of overriding patient rights, a forced cesarean section
• Vaginal cutting (episiotomy)
• Abusive language
• Separation from family/restriction of companionship
• Lack of respectful treatment
• Voice and wishes disregarded/unheard
• Emotional manipulation using baby as a “card” to force compliance (“you want a healthy baby don’t you?” No mother doesn’t. It is degrading and dehumanizing to suggest that she doesn’t.)
• Forced separation of mother and baby
• Administration of medications without consent
• Cord traction and interference with third stage (placenta) that may lead to hemorrhage.
The emotional treatment of women in labor is the most significant factor contributing to their satisfaction with their birth experiences (emotional factors of highest importance include having good support from caregivers and being treated with respect). According to Kitzinger, “We are only now discovering the long-term destructive effect on human beings and families of treating women as if they were merely containers, to be opened and relieved of their contents; and of concentrating attention on a bag of muscle and a birth canal, rather than relating to, and caring for, the person to whom they belong. The violence which is a common element in childbirth today leaves many women feeling that birth has been a kind of rape. This sort of experience is not easily forgotten. It can shatter a woman’s self-confidence, make her doubt her ability to mother her baby, destroy joy in the expression of her sexuality, and attack her very sense of self–the roots of her identity. It is psychologically mutilating.”
And, as Mary Rucklos Hampton says, “The effort to separate the physical experience of childbirth from the mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of this event has served to disempower and violate women.”
Note: In 2009, I wrote an article about birth violence for International Women’s Day, but it appears to have never been published. So, I decided to post it here (and on the CFM blog in honor of this year’s International Women’s Day on March 8th). I also read two relevant articles recently: How childbirth caused my PTSD and Birth Trauma: An Introduction.