“The amount of times I have to say, ‘She’s saying no, and you have your hand in her vagina. You need to take it out’ is unreal."
Balazs says she has also witnessed sexual assault during birth, and she makes a distinction between “unwanted medical touching” of the vagina, which some consider to be sexual assault, and incidents that were overtly “sexualized.” “I have actually had very sexually explicit things said to people while they’re in labor,” says Balazs. “I can’t even describe how incredibly strange it is when you watch what can only be described as a rape, and then someone has their baby handed to them, and then it’s the best moment of their life.”
"I can’t even describe how incredibly strange it is when you watch what can only be described as a rape, and then someone has their baby handed to them, and then it's the best moment of their life."
“Why are women dying?” demands Dr. Katharine Morrison, an OB-GYN in Buffalo, New York. Morrison believes the answer lies in maternity care that is male dominated, unscientific, and often dangerous. She points to the C-section rate in the US, which is currently over 30 percent, more than double the figure recommended by the World Health Organization. C-section carries risks of complications and death that can be three times higher than vaginal birth. “It has to do with this combination of fee-for-service medicine and misogyny,” Morrison says.In standard OB-GYN care, Morrison says, women are barred from making choices in ways that would be unthinkable in other medical situations. She believes the root of this approach, and of obstetric violence, is the idea that a mother and baby are separate entities, that the baby has “rights” that supersede his mother’s. “So all agency has been taken from women,” Morrison says. “And the people who have done that are obstetrician-gynecologists. Obstetric violence has been visited upon pregnant women by the people that they look to for help and guidance.”Without help or guidance from the medical field to confront obstetric violence, women are turning to activism. Many in maternity care feel that only a consumer movement demanding respect and autonomy will curb the abuse; internal regulation is unlikely, they say, and state-by-state changes to criminal code would occur far too slowly. The national organization Improving Birth offers an “accountability toolkit” to help women file complaints about their treatment. And advocates like Cristen Pascucci of Birth Monopoly are working to publicize the stories of obstetric violence survivors. Pascucci is currently collaborating with Caroline Malatesta on a documentary film, Mother May I? focused on bringing this hidden epidemic into the light.But the greatest weapon for pregnant people may be information, and birth doulas are often the most knowledgeable about local providers and hospitals. Many doulas say they refuse to work at certain hospitals and with certain doctors because of the abuse they have witnessed, and they endeavor to keep their clients fully informed without terrifying them. Others feel compelled to keep quiet, fearing their warnings could cause professional backlash. This cautionary role is not part of a doula’s job description, but it is becoming a critical one.“It’s a hard place to be,” says Mychal Balazs, “because as a certified, experienced doula, it is not your job to know what hospitals you’re more likely to be raped at. But if I know something, I tell it like it is.”
"Obstetric violence has been visited upon pregnant women by the people that they look to for help and guidance.”