I was born in a snowstorm from a woman whose body was stolen. She was knocked out and drugged up hours after arriving at the hospital where she planned to birth her first child. Her doctor told her to stop screaming as she writhed in pain on a white-sheeted gurney, in a crowded hallway of a New York City hospital. She didn’t oblige his request and was eventually sedated, sighing deep with wet-cheeks. She did not know what she was given.
This was 1968. My father was told to wait outside the delivery room while his wife silently birthed. When she woke up, the doctor told my mother she had a beautiful baby girl. But she knew different. “No, I don’t! Where’s my son? Where’s my baby boy?!”, she screamed at no one. “You had a girl.” No, no, no, no, no, I imagine she thought. Sorrow cloaked in rage rushed through the veins that carried the drugs that cleaved the memory from her body. A baby was born from her and she did not know whom it was.
A nurse placed my tiny 5 lb. body into her arms. How? I imagine she wondered.
I rested lightly against her chest. The baby whose body seeded inside her own, growing through the force of her love until I became a life breathing in tandem with her, through her. I was she and she was I. Until the moment I was born without her knowledge, as she lay dark and unconscious, dilated, expanded and opened and stripped of her will as hands reached inside her and others kept her stretched wide. She did not consent to this.
Whose hand held the scissors that cut us apart? Was it the doctor who delivered babies only on Wednesdays? It’s unlikely it was my father’s. He was not allowed in to the room until much later. My mother still does not know who severed the vessel that kept us connected—that kept me alive while in her womb. But she still wishes she knew.
This was obstetric violence and it still happens today. An article in Broadly about calls it a hidden epidemic and describes it as such:
It is an umbrella term that includes disrespectful attitudes, coercion, bullying, and discrimination from care providers, lack of consent for examinations or treatment, forced procedures like C-section by court order, and also physical abuse.
What did my mother want? Who thought of her? This was nothing new to her. My mother was taught acquiescence when it came to her body was a given within her family, within her world. This, her first pregnancy, gave my mother hope. Hope that a new world was possible through the cells, blood, heart, and breath of a new human she and my father created. When I think back now, it’s a lot to imbue in a newborn baby: you will have everything I did not. You will absorb all that I want and all that I believe you can be from this day forward. Maybe that’s how every new soul comes into the world. Maybe that’s why every new soul comes into this world.
Somehow, they forgot about me. The nurses who were supposed to bring me to the newborn nursery to sleep with the other babies who slipped into the world around the same time. They left me in my mother’s arms, in the room where she now lay recovering. My mother has told me this story multiple times over the decades. “You slept in my arms and I held my breath hoping they wouldn’t realize they left you with me.” It’s an odd thing to hear—a mother’s fear that the baby whose body was one with hers, whose life she grew and sustained, would be taken from her whether she consented.
When I delivered my own children, with midwives and a doula, my babies stayed with me from the moment I birthed them. Each slept beside me, in a bassinet next to my hospital bed. My husband on a cot in the room as well.
I felt freer to make my own decisions about how, where, and with whom I wanted to birth, to bring my children into the world. I had privilege and power: health insurance, English as a first language, I am a U.S. citizen, able-bodied, cis-gender, straight, and white. And yet—I am a woman. And girls in this country are taught from the moment we can understand; we do not own our bodies. Laws, culture, language, healthcare and education tell girls and women: you do not need to give consent for your bodies to be cut open, commented upon, picked apart, entered, manipulated, stripped of pieces and parts, or, even to birth a baby.
There is some progress, though, when it comes to women’s treatment during pregnancy and childbirth.
In 2016, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) issued a “Committee Opinion” recognizing the “centrality of the pregnant women’s decisional authority” when it comes to medical treatment and interventions during labor and childbirth. Although it does not have the power of law or policy behind it, it’s a useful ethical guideline for all people to read and understand. It offers a desperately needed map to help fight obstetric violence, but we still have much more to do to create safe and coercion free birth experiences for all women.
I was slammed by the agony of back labor before the birth of my first child, my son. He was turned inside me—his body and face pushing against my abdomen, causing what felt like unbearable pressure on my sacrum. I remember being shocked by how pure the pain was—there was nothing to ease me into the brutality of what was happening to my body. I lay in the birthing room, riding the waves of contractions, my midwife not yet at the hospital. The nurses were concerned about my son’s heart rate, strapped a fetal monitor across my hard, round belly and sent for the doctor on-call. My husband was there, the holder of my birth plan—the plan that said “no fetal monitors” and “no interventions if they can be avoided.” But we felt powerless to say no. I thought my body was doing something wrong and I immediately became its worst critic as if my body was failing me during a time I needed it most. This experience, maddeningly, is not uncommon for laboring women, perhaps unsurprisingly to those of us who have birthed a child. For women of color, these experiences are compounded by discriminatory behavior on the part of healthcare providers, which contributes to higher rates of complications and maternal death, compared to white women.
As my labor progressed and the consistent surge of back spasms continued, the doctor arrived. By this time, I had fallen into a sort of otherworldly oblivion through the waves of pain. There was only my son and there was me, my body the keeper of our connection. I heard the voices of the nurses tell me the doctor was going to try and turn my son around, but I did not want that. I did not want this stranger to slide his arm inside my body. What were my options? Why was I not told this might happen? How could I avert this? He did it anyway as I drifted in and out of consciousness from the throbbing at my tailbone. Like many women before and after me have reported around the country, the doctor entered my body while I was barely able to register what permission or consent looked like.
My boy was born healthy, several hours later, after being vacuumed out of my birth canal, as I lay barely there, hurting.
My baby was safe, but my body was breached. Did I consent to this? To what do I give permission when I have the life of another human’s at stake, inside of me? How do women navigate our own bodies and the lines of consent during labor and birth? How do we draw the lines between respectful and disrespectful care during labor and childbirth and postpartum, times when women are at their most vulnerable?
My mother, like millions before her, wanted to keep her baby safe. She did not consent to being drugged into a stupor. She did not know her body’s boundaries were hers to draw when faced with a medical establishment that did not see her as a fully capable human being. I knew intellectually I had the right to safe, respectful care decades later, when I became pregnant. I drafted a birth plan grounded in my consent and still it did not protect me. When faced with what were presented as critical moments of decision-making, I didn’t know what to do or I was paralyzed by pain.
Birth requires women’s bodies to literally open wide to the world, to expand our physical selves and to expose a new life to the world beyond our own bodies. Birth asks of us to trust everyone around us with our very being. Some women find birth to be a time when they feel their strongest, their most powerful, and their most beautiful. For others, labor and birth are filled with fear and trauma. Many women, I think, experience a combination.
It is terrifying and common for girls and women to be forced to put our bodies out into the world for others to do with what they want. We fight against a system and a society that is rooted in girls’ and women’s compliance—and we ask this of women during labor and birth as well. It is up to those around us to ensure women have the ability to give permission, to sanction what is done to and with our bodies—even as another life relies on ours. Birth offers an incomparable opportunity to experience our bodies as uniquely ours, both within our control and at once in stunning communion with another soul; even if surgery or other interventions are needed to bring a healthy baby into the world.
We need to fight for this, though. To do that, we must first acknowledge that obstetric violence is real and is being perpetrated upon women during labor and childbirth. We and we alone are the ones who must have the final say over what is done to and with our bodies, even as we have another life dependent upon our own.
At its core, obstetric violence is a human rights issue. All pregnant and birthing people need to understand their rights. It is not only women who suffer from obstetric violence. All people maintain their human rights when pregnant and birthing. As the organization Human Rights in Childbirth explains,
Obstetric violence is truly a reproductive justice issue, and therefore, a human rights issue. It impacts women, trans, two-spirit, and gender non-conforming folks across demographic lines, but has a disproportionate impact on people experiencing marginalization and vulnerable life circumstances.
People of color, LGBTQ+, and immigrant women have been disproportionately victims of obstetric violence. The term “birth justice” was coined by women of color to ensure pregnancy and birth are safe for those most impacted by obstetric violence. Black Women Birthing Justice shares that birth justice “aims to dismantle inequalities of race, class, gender and sexuality that lead to negative birth experiences, especially for women of color, low-income women, survivors of violence, immigrant women, queer and transfolks, and women in the Global South.”
The fight for birth justice and to eradicate obstetric violence will be successful only by centering those who are most vulnerable. In addition to education, advocacy and activism, there are direct actions we can take to confront and protect against obstetric violence in our own lives.
The National Partnership for Women and Families and Childbirth Connection developed a document titled “The Rights of Childbearing Women” to educate and inform birthing people about their rights. It’s important that pregnant and birthing people—and those who support them—understand that we don’t lose ownership over our bodies, over what is done to and with our bodies, during childbirth. If our rights are violated, however, speaking up for ourselves, reporting the incident, and sharing our stories is the only way change will happen. The group Improving Birth exists to make birth safe for all pregnant people and offers an “Accountability Toolkit” to guide people who have suffered everything from mistreatment during childbirth to abuse, to make change.
Our consent is primary: it is beautiful; it is necessary. My mother was stripped of her right to consent, of her bodily autonomy, during childbirth. I was, I thought, more aware of the boundaries around my body when I gave birth to my first child. I (wrongly) assumed they were embedded in my birth plan and in the hearts of the health professionals who cared for me. It is our responsibility to speak the stories of our stolen bodies so that future generations are brought forth with safety and justice.
Amie Newman is a writer, editor, and communications professional for mission-driven, nonprofit organizations. She has dedicated her professional and personal life to fighting for reproductive justice for all people through her work with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rewire News, Our Bodies Ourselves, NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, among others. Amie’s essays and articles have appeared in numerous books and publications including Bright Magazine, The Manifest Station, Role Reboot, Lilith Magazine, Kveller, Truthout, Alternet, and many others. She lives in and complains endlessly about Seattle, and shares her life with her husband, 16-year-old daughter, and 19-year-old son.