By Kalina Christoff
On Monday, July 22 at 4:24 pm local time in London, UK, Kate Middleton gave birth to the royal baby. It was a perfect, natural birth and it went exactly according to her birth plan. Medication free, her labour sailed through beautifully in a private delivery suite, with four midwives watching over her. A team of obstetricians and paediatricians observed the birth, but respectfully kept their distance and avoided interfering with the process by standing behind a glass wall.
On Tuesday, July 23, at 7:13 pm local time, Kate emerged from the hospital, glowing with happiness and radiating dignity. She showed her newborn to the public and the press who had been waiting behind a fence, respectfully and politely, to catch a glimpse of the baby. She held her newborn tightly, close to her body, as she waived to the crowd. Then, as she handed the baby over to her husband, prince William, she checked that William was holding the baby correctly and instructed him confidently, “Mind his head.” William, respectful of Kate’s competency as a mother, followed her instructions closely.
Hours later, on Wednesday, July 24 at 11:00 pm local time in Vancouver, Canada, a seven-month pregnant woman took a walk in the local park, perhaps to cool herself down after another long hot summer day. A building nearby was being demolished. Maybe it was the noise from the demolition, or maybe it was the heat of the summer, or maybe it was because the woman was pregnant with twins, but she unexpectedly went into labour and gave birth to the first twin in the park. A man saw the birth, panicked, and ran to the police officers who were directing traffic at the demolition site, saying, “A woman is giving birth in the park!”
The police officers rushed to the woman. They saw her holding a newborn. They approached her. She refused their assistance and told the police to go away. The police did not. She tried to walk away from them, while holding her newborn baby.
Then the police officers noticed that the birth was still ongoing. “Are you giving birth to a second baby?” the officers asked. “No, get away from me”, the woman insisted. According to the police, “She then paused for a moment and a second baby appeared.”
The officers saw her holding both her babies tightly, close to her body. Too tightly, they thought, too closely. So, according to the official police report, “The officers moved in. Two of them stood behind her and held her arms, grabbed her fingers. Two other officers moved in from the front and put their hands underneath the mother and scooped up the babies and were able to grab the babies as the mother’s grip was released from the babies’ heads.”
In other words, four police officers held the woman down while they forcefully wrestled the newborn babies out of her arms, just seconds after the woman had given birth to them. A scene very different from what I imagine Kate Middleton’s childbirth was like.
What really stands out in Kate’s story is the respect everyone showed her during the birth — from the crowds of paparazzi politely standing behind the fences, to the specialist medical teams politely standing behind a glass window. Giving birth left her with newfound dignity and a sense of competency as a new mother — competency so touchingly acknowledged by William in the exchange of the newborn baby between them.
But what about the rest of us, non-royals? How often can we, ordinary non-celebrity women, expect to obtain respect and dignity during childbirth?
The mother of twins giving birth in the park certainly didn’t get any respect from the police officers who rushed to “assist” her, against her will. They were quick to dismiss her competency as a mother and forcefully took her newborn babies away from her. She didn’t emerge from giving birth with newfound dignity. All her dignity was taken away, together with her newborns, as the police restrained her, put her on an ambulance stretcher and took her to a hospital against her will and despite her repeated refusals. Their explanation? The woman had a history of mental health issues, the police announced.
Mental health issues? Does that really explain their behaviour? About half of the world’s population has, or has had in their lifetime, some mental health illness. That’s every second person. Does that mean that half of the world’s women — those with “mental health issues” — should be declared unfit as mothers and have their babies taken away from them immediately upon birth? Surely not. But then why did the police act so disrespectfully towards the mother?
Maybe the police quickly classified her as a “bad, unfit mother” because she managed to give birth in a park, by herself — and, shockingly to them, refused their offer of “assistance”. In a culture that believes women cannot possibly give birth without assistance, this must have come as a brutal shock to the police officers. Our modern view of a “good, responsible mother” is one who readily and gratefully accepts all kinds of medical “assistance” in the form of oxytocin drips, epidurals, repeated vaginal exams, Caesareans, forceps, vacuums, episiotomies, and all kinds of other invasive and often unnecessary medical procedures. Birthing women’s competency as mothers is often judged solely based on their level of compliance with these procedures.
But surely, even shocked police officers in a “chaotic situation” should at least consider the possibility that a woman has the right to refuse assistance — especially when she seems to be handling the task of giving birth unassisted so well.
Or maybe the police behaved so disrespectfully towards the mother because she made the mistake of living in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, also known as “Canada’s poorest postal code”. Maybe simply living in a poor area makes a birthing woman unworthy of respect in the eyes of police officers?
I wish I could say that if only this woman hadn’t had the misfortune of giving birth in a park and being “helped” by police officers, if only she had made it to a hospital and been attended by adequately trained medical personnel, she would have received the respect every birthing woman deserves. But I can’t. My own hospital birth experience stops me.
I didn’t have any of the disadvantages this woman had. Yet, I had a horribly disrespectful birth that left me feeling violated and deeply traumatized.
I didn’t make any of the “mistakes” this woman made. I chose one of the more affluent areas of Vancouver to live in. I had a stable, well-paying and well-respected academic job. I didn’t mistrust doctors; on the contrary, I respected and highly valued the medical profession, including obstetricians. I didn’t have any mental health issues and I didn’t go into premature labour.
But none of it made a difference. When it came time to give birth, the medical staff treated me with utter disrespect and violated some of the most basic rights I thought I had as a human being. It started with my prenatal doctor performing a non-consented membrane sweep on me, to my surprise and shock, at 38 weeks of pregnancy. It ended with me being coerced into a medically unnecessary forceps delivery performed, without my knowledge, by a trainee resident who simply needed a chance to practice forceps extraction.
I didn’t emerge from giving birth with newfound dignity. I emerged with post-traumatic stress disorder.
And as to my sense of competency as a mother, that started being questioned by medical staff in the delivery room, as soon as I “failed” to immediately comply with their recommendation for forceps. Once the questioning of my competency as a mother had started, it got carried on by nurses in the post-partum room, then by my own husband at home, and then by my entire extended family as I was struggling with the trauma of being repeatedly violated and unnecessarily separated (albeit ‘only’ for 15 minutes) from my newborn.
I deeply sympathize and identify with the woman in the park. In somewhat different life circumstances, I could have been her. And in many ways, three years ago in November 2010 when I gave birth, I was her.
I deeply sympathize and identify with all the women, rich and poor, professional, homeless, or stay-at-home moms, who were disrespected while giving birth to their children, whose dignity was taken away and whose competency as mothers was questioned because they didn’t comply, they doubted, they showed a capacity to be independent thinking human beings even as they were giving birth and dared to question the opinions of those around them who weren’t giving birth.
Respect and dignity during childbirth is not just for royals. It’s not just for the celebrities of this world, or for those women who show unquestioning compliance to anyone who decides to “help”, be that a medical professional at a hospital or a security guard at a shopping mall.
If we are to call ourselves a civilized society, we need to guarantee respect and dignity for all women during childbirth, regardless of what choices they make during childbirth and in what circumstances they give birth.
Our society cannot yet, and will not for now, guarantee this respect to birthing women. Which is also why we cannot consider ourselves a civilized society. We do not respect birth, do not respect life, do not respect those who are creating new life.
What would it take?
In my opinion, it would take new laws.
In the current legal vacuum on women’s human rights in childbirth, police officers and medical staff are too quick to conclude that they can do anything to a woman, as long as they believe it is for the baby’s good. They don’t have to have evidence that it is actually good for the baby, they just have to believe that it is. And they don’t have to consult the mother before they do it. They don’t even have to find out what she believes. The existing laws that are used to justify such interference, and the lack of laws specifically regulating women’s human rights in pregnancy and childbirth, legally allow and condone such actions.
This situation is wrong. It is unacceptable. It gives all the power to anyone who may want to interfere with the birth process, whatever noble or misconceived reasons they may have, and it takes away all the dignity and human rights of birthing women.
We need a radical, broad transformation when it comes to human rights in childbirth. We need to guarantee, through explicit and newly created legislation, that it is the birthing woman who always comes first, that her rights over her body and over her unborn baby are always to be respected first, even when others believe that something different from what she is doing would be better for her baby. And even when others believe that she is endangering her unborn baby by her behaviour and choices.
But how will we get there?