Obstetric Assault Is a Serious Issue

Imagine being in the hospital, about to have a baby. This special day should go down in your memory as a magical, wonderful time, and ideally the birth of your child is a dream come true.

Then imagine that dream turning into a nightmare as the healthcare professionals you turn to for help in delivering your baby assault you. While this may seem unimaginable, obstetric assault is an all-too-common and real issue.

Obstetric assault blankets several types of obstetric violence, both verbal and physical. Obstetric assault can occur at any time during a woman's pregnancy, but some of the most egregious examples of this sort of violence take place during childbirth.

Verbal obstetric assault may include slurs, put-downs and humiliation. For example, a nurse at a low-income prenatal clinic verbally barraging a young mother for becoming pregnant when she lacks the financial means to support a child, harshly criticising an older mother for waiting so long to get pregnant, or berating a woman who has already given birth multiple times for having “too many” children.

While verbal harassment is bad enough, physical obstetric assault can leave even deeper physical and psychological scars. Examples of physical assault include forcing medication on a patient who has refused such care, performing medical procedures without patient consent or even directly against patient wishes and, while rare, forced measures to make patients pay, such as refusing them the right to sign out of the care facility or refusal to be shown their infant.

It may seem that obstetric assault would be uncommon; after all, most healthcare professionals choosing to work with expectant mothers have a great respect for women and the miracle of creating new life. Sadly, though, because of antiquated medical attitudes which bias some physicians toward certain procedures no longer deemed necessary by more modern doctors, obstetric violence is far from rare.

For example, Kimberly Turbin, a young mother and two-time rape survivor, experienced first-hand what obstetric assault felt like. Even though she specifically informed the hospital prior to her admission that, due to PTSD from the assault, any touch was to be extra gentle and 100% consensual, her physician insisted, over Turbin's protests, to perform an episiotomy.

Obstetric assault is a form of medical malpractice

While episiotomies remain common, many efforts have been made to perform them only when absolutely medically necessary unless the patient expressly consents to one in order to speed up the childbirth process. In Turbin's case, she had not yet even begun to attempt to deliver the baby naturally before her doctor insisted on performing the procedure despite her express verbal refusal of the procedure.

The World Health Organisation has conducted a number of studies into obstetric assault and is in the process of updating guidelines for physicians, nurses and other healthcare professionals to follow when dealing with obstetric patients to eliminate this devastating problem as much as possible.

In the meantime, though, the best preventative step you can take to decrease the likelihood of your becoming a victim is to create a birth plan well before your scheduled due date, and share it with everyone you plan to have in the delivery room, including both the healthcare professionals who will be assisting you as well as any friends or family you plan to have present.

Your birth plan should include the basics, such as the name of your physician and anyone who will be accompanying you into the birth room. To avoid miscommunication between yourself, family and medical personnel, be sure to include what medication you will allow, if any, as well as what procedures you do and do not want performed. For example, you may specify ahead of time that no spinal nerve agents be used or no episiotomy be performed unless absolutely medically necessary.

Even the best laid plans of new mothers sometimes aren't enough to prevent obstetric assault. Obstetric assault is a form of medical malpractice, and if you feel you have been a victim of obstetric assault, you can contact legal counsel. Although the legal process is something many try to avoid, it can make all the difference in preventing further damage done on the part of the assaulting physician. Many personal injury attorneys also offer free consultations where you can determine whether or not you have a case.

Giving birth should be a magical dream, not a terrible nightmare. But if your birth went wrong to the point where your attending healthcare professionals can be held civilly liable, it is within your rights to seek justice.

More about the author

About the author

Born in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Kate Harveston is a recent college graduate and an aspiring journalist. She enjoys writing about social change and human rights issues, but she has written on a wide variety of other topics as well.

She blogs on social and cultural issues at  Only Slightly Biased.

Follow Kate on Twitter.

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