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When Doctors Abuse Women in Labor

Most people are not familiar with obstetric violence, but it is an experience many women have shared. It is a cross between institutional violence and violence against women before, during, and after pregnancy. It occurs in private and public medical practice and can associate what is supposed to be a momentous occasion with humiliation, pain, and even death.

Abuse during labor practices can take many different forms. For some women it may consist of verbal abuse, such as ignoring her pain or denying her specific treatment. For others, it can include physical violence, such as unnecessary medication or invasive practices. Obstetric violence can even extend so far as to force or coerce someone into a medical practice which they can’t afford, and then detain them for failing to pay.

Although there have not been any widespread studies to show how many women are affected by this practice, there are women who whisper their horror stories to their friends and family. Rinat Dray was expecting her third child and did extensive research to find a doctor that supported her birth plan. When she arrived at the hospital, her doctor was not there and the doctor that was present wheeled her into surgery despite her protests telling her “Don’t speak” and “My license is more important than you.” Lisa Epsteen scheduled a caesarean due to complications, and later consented to an emergency surgery, but was unable to show for the preponed procedure because she had no one to watch her two year old. She made the decision to wait a few days until the original scheduled date and woke up to an email from her obstetrician threatening “the most extreme option” of having her arrested and brought to the hospital (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1016/j.rhm.2016.04.004). Kimberly Turbin was a rape survivor and asked her providers to be gentle with her and inform her of any actions they planned on taking so she would have the opportunity to give her consent. The attending obstetrician told her he would be performing an episiotomy (a procedure that is not recommended except in cases of emergency) and despite her pleading cut into her perineum 12 times (https://www.lamaze.org/blog/what-is-obstetric-violence-and-what-can-you-do-about-it).

One particularly disturbing example of obstetric violence is the “daddy stitch” or “husband stitch”. The “husband stitch” is when doctors sew the vagina tighter than it was before delivery. This is often done without the woman’s consent or even knowledge. Jessica*, a woman in Texas, is in the process of suing the hospital where she had her baby toward the end of last year. Jessica knew something was wrong as soon as she got home but couldn’t put her finger on it. Weeks later when she went in for her checkup her doctor told her that whoever stitched her up had added an extra stitch. Jessica’s husband vaguely remembers the doctor saying “Let’s add in another for you, eh Daddy?” but didn’t know what the doctor was referring to, and Jessica has no recollection of the event at all. Unfortunately, stories like this are not uncommon, but the “husband stitch” is not something that is taken seriously.

There is absolutely a place for medical practices in the world of labor and delivery. Modern medicine has advanced to the point where pregnancy and labor mortality rates have plummeted due to access to medical care and general awareness. However, pregnancy is too often being treated as a disease that needs constant observation and intervention rather than a natural physiological occurrence.

I had my first child in a hospital that touted itself as being “revolutionary” and “baby friendly”. I was hooked up to machines and had to stay in my bed, which means I wasn’t allowed to walk through my contraction pain. I also was not allowed to eat for the whole time I was in the hospital. For two days I was not able to move from my bed, eat, or sleep. When it came time to deliver my baby, I was somehow expected to have the strength and awareness to push after two days of no food or sleep. Needless to say, that was not the childbirth experience I had hoped to have.

Medical professionals need to remember to listen to the people in their care charge and fulfill the oath they took to protect their patients.

*Name changed to preserve anonymity

Resources:

National Advocates for Pregnant Women http://advocatesforpregnantwomen.org/

Maternal Health Task Force https://www.mhtf.org/resources/

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