Freedom For Birth: The Mothers’ Revoltuion
There’s rarely an issue, a concept or a campaign that almost all of us can agree on, but I think I’ve found something. A no-brainer.
I believe that decisions about my body are mine alone to make. I get to decide if I want to take drugs, whether I want to go bungee jumping, if I’ll accept chemotherapy and whether I’ll have my appendix out. I am pretty certain that, much as I’ll be keen to listen to expert opinion and consider my options the final decision about any of the above should rest with me. I feel good about the fact that the police aren’t going to turn up at my door and drag me kicking and screaming to the dentist, strap me down in the chair and remove my wisdom teeth without my consent. It gladdens my heart to know that my cardiologist won’t be imprisoned for treating me and that I won’t be endangering my GP’s right to practice when I visit her surgery.
I feel pretty confident that most of you will join me in this belief and probably wonder why I’m going on about something so boringly obvious. Sadly it’s not as clear-cut as it first appears.
Last night women across the world held over a thousand premiere screenings of a powerful new documentary called Freedom For Birth. It’s a film that re-frames human rights as the most pressing issue in childbirth today. In more than 50 countries thousands of women, were so concerned about their right to make decisions about their bodies that they gathered en masse to watch, discuss and make action plans for change.
At the Rio Cinema in Hackney I sat with 120 others and watched their faces ripple with shock as they learned that:
- in some European countries, and several US states, birth outside hospital is illegal
- midwives are being criminally prosecuted and imprisoned for providing much needed services
- in the US and the UK child/social services are increasingly being involved when a woman refuses to consent to a recommended birth intervention
- cases of court-ordered caesarean sections, against maternal wishes, are a reality in the US
In the film lawyers, obstetricians, midwives, doulas, mothers and perinatologists clearly articulated the facts: humans have a set of inalienable rights. These rights are increasingly being abused across the globe when a woman gives birth. These are not isolated incidents born of ignorance but systemic and cultural failures to respect birthing women as individuals with the same set of rights as the rest of the population.
In the subsequent Q&A session women raised their hands admitting they weren’t aware that they had the right to choose where to give birth, who should be there and what they would consent to. Passionate midwives, doctors and lawyers emphasised that women had the right to autonomy during birth and that anything done to them without their consent, or failures in the system that robbed them of the right to make choices, was a violation of their rights. This position was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in a case of a mother vs. the state of Hungary that the film describes in detail.
After the lights came up every woman I spoke to was desperate to help raise awareness of these issues, frightened of the consequences of ignoring them and keen to ensure that every woman is aware that she has access to her human rights throughout her life. Several women realised that their own rights were currently being breached or had be in the past.
So, on behalf of them, I urge you to find out more. Visit freedomforbirth.com, follow the conversation on twitter (#freedomforbirth), look out for the soon-to-be-released online version of the film and visit birthrights.org.uk (a new legal charity devoted to the promotion and protection of women’s rights in childbirth).
Then consider the implications of allowing our rights to be chipped away. What precedent does it set if the state can force women (by mis-application of the law, coercion or lack of provision) to have things done to their bodies? What cultural context do we allow our daughters to be born in to if women aren’t the principal decision makers in choices about reproductive rights? Where might we find ourselves if we shrug our shoulders now instead of demanding what we are due by right of our own birth?
There will always be ethical debates, grey areas involving the unique state of pregnancy. But, as the razor-sharp human rights’ barrister Elizabeth Prochaska of BirthRights reminds me, the law is crystal clear. If you do something to a woman without her consent: be it a vaginal examination, an episiotomy or a caesarean it is criminal assault. These rights are fragile, connected together by an unseen web, dependent on each other for their survival. Chip away at one person or one group’s rights and we leave everyone vulnerable. Decide that a particular right doesn’t apply any more and risk all the others. They need to be protected, upheld and understood. And not just by those who have lost or are about to loose them but particularly by those of us who take them for granted.
Birth, to the thousands of us who banded together last night, is the very frontline battleground for human rights. Nothing says more about a society, a culture or an individual’s attitude to the rights of those around him as his attitude to the rights and responsibilities of a birthing woman. If the moment where our human rights begin as a newborn baby is set against a gruesome backdrop of our mother’s subjugation to the deliberate, even criminal, withdrawal of some of the very basic rights we all expect, what chance have we [the baby] of living a life where our own rights are respected?
This is not a ‘natural’ birth issue. This is not a home birth issue. This is not really even a birth issue or a womens’ issue. This is an issue of our humanity and I’m damned if I’m giving away a slice of mine.