by Henci Goer
In 1959, the Ladies' Home Journal published an article called “Cruelty in the Maternity Wards,” in which women told stories of their inhumane treatment during childbirth. Despite the uproar it provoked, 50 years later, nothing substantial has changed. Really. Recently, a pregnant Florida woman was confined by the court to bedrest and ordered to submit to any treatment her doctor deemed necessary, including cesarean surgery.
This is one of a string of similar stories appearing over the past months: A New Jersey woman with PTSD and depression in her past was deprived of custody of her child at birth because she refused to sign a blanket consent at hospital admission for cesarean surgery, an act cited as proof she was too mentally ill to be a fit mother. An Arizona woman with a prior Cesarean was told if she showed up in labor and refused automatic surgery, the hospital would get a court order and perform it anyway. And an Illinois woman was literally tortured throughout labor by her doctor to punish her for not calling before coming to the hospital while medical staff stood by and did nothing.
These stories aren’t aberrations. We have a culture of impunity in maternity wards. Once pregnant, a woman effectively cedes her right to autonomy and bodily integrity to obstetric staff who sometimes—on grounds of fetal welfare, self-protection from malpractice suits, or mere convenience—manipulate women into compliance in ways that would be considered fraud in any other venue. Without fear of being called to account for it, they can bully, coerce, humiliate, and threaten. And, yes, they can physically mistreat or even sexually assault them—imagine if the Illinois woman’s story occurred outside of an L&D unit.