Global Mistreatment of Women During Childbirth

Having experienced appallingly unprofessional behavior from a number of healthcare workers in the gynecological field over the years as well as significant physical and emotional trauma during the birth of my son and subsequent postpartum care, the issue of the mistreatment of women in health facilities is personal and important to me.

Considering some of my more negative experiences at prominent healthcare facilities in the United States, I was not surprised by an article in the journal PLOS Medicine, citing widespread mistreatment of women during childbirth in healthcare facilities globally, but I was certainly saddened by it. The article states, “recent studies have indicated that women are often exposed to neglectful, abusive, and disrespectful care (care that local consensus regards as humiliating or undignified) during childbirth in health facilities.”

I am fortunate to live in a country where detaining a mother and her newborn until she has paid her medical bills is illegal, where pinching and slapping a woman during childbirth would be considered assault, a punishable felony. Many women are less fortunate, but human rights shouldn’t be left to chance.

A woman in labor is a person both at her most vulnerable and most powerful. She has to give in to the primal, painful, and uncontrollable ride that her body and baby are taking her on. But she is also at her strongest, because what godlier human act is there than that of literally creating another human life? I think this paradox, at least on a subconscious level, is at the heart of the issue of abuse during childbirth and violence against women in general.

It comes down to power, and physical violence, emotional abuse, and humiliation are the easiest means of exerting power while stripping it from the victims of such violence. Maintaining the status quo in cultures of gross gender inequality is the goal. That’s why the problem of mistreatment during delivery should be addressed at a political and institutional level, with standards established by the World Health Organization, enacted by governments, and enforced locally so that women aren’t afraid to get the medical care they need when they need it.

I have been subject to my share of what I can only consider bullying from medical professionals. From one OB-GYN telling me that if I wanted a natural birth I should go to the park, to another trying to coerce me into having a c-section by going on at length about how poorly my labor was progressing only to find that I was 10 cm dilated once she checked me, to an OB-GYN medical director telling me his old mentor would have just advised me to keep my legs crossed to heal my 3rd-degree vaginal tear, which had been improperly sutured by someone in his group practice. But none of these indignities is even remotely close to suffering physical or sexual assault at the hands of a healthcare provider, something commonplace in other parts of the world and not unheard of in this country. So, to a certain degree, I feel grateful for the less than respectful treatment I received during my delivery and postpartum care, because things could have been much worse.

On the other hand, I still get upset at myself for not being more assertive and doing more to prevent unnecessary interventions from happening during and in the moments following my labor and delivery. My mixed feelings about what I would like to remember as one of the best days of my life speak volumes about the state of maternal care in our country.

All that said, what can we do to protect ourselves and other women from mistreatment during childbirth? We can start by taking action locally. It’s best to bring up your complaint while you’re still in the hospital. This might not be possible if you’re not feeling well enough to deal with the matter or if you’re intimidated by the hospital setting (it’s often hard not to be). So, once you’re feeling well enough and have had some time to consider the medical care you received during your birth, take the time to write a letter to your healthcare facility detailing your objections to what happened. Also, send a letter to your state’s Department of Health, clearly explaining what transpired during your delivery. Lastly, make sure to post reviews of your doctor and healthcare facility on Yelp, ZocDoc, and any other relevant sites so that other women can gain insight from your experience and make a more informed choice when it comes to their own care.

Just as not reporting a rape or other violent crime does nothing to get sex offenders and criminals off the streets, keeping quiet about mistreatment during childbirth simply fosters a culture of secrecy and shame about childbirth abuse and trauma rather than getting healthcare workers to change their behavior and institutions to amend their policies.

So, please, when you’re ready to talk about your birth experience and any mistreatment you suffered, don’t be afraid to do so. There are many women in the United States and the world who have had similar delivery experiences, and our voices need to be heard.