***TRIGGER WARNING: Some individuals may find the content of this article to be disturbing or distressing.***
“Please stop! Please stop!” I begged the charge nurse helping deliver my son as she ignored my pleas, though her eye roll suggests she heard them. Though these words and images played in my head repeatedly and frequently, it took over a year for me to call it what it was – assault.
While the Me Too Movement and high profile cases like Bill Cosby’s are drawing national attention to the problems of sexual assault and rape culture, I am left wondering if we are leaving out a major group of women whom are left feeling violated and traumatized by birth.
I sought out therapy when my son was about six months old thinking I had postpartum depression. Instead I was re-diagnosed with chronic depression and anxiety and given the new diagnosis of panic disorder. My therapist and I kept coming back to me grieving the birth of my son. I had set out to have a natural birth and it ended in an unplanned c-section. While there is truth to that, we discovered there was something else to it when I confessed that the very sight of a pregnant woman or newborn could give me a panic attack.
She suggested I had PTSD like symptoms and that we would take a new approach to therapy. When I was discussing this with a friend, she asked me “what happened?!” It was then that I gave a step-by-step explanation of what happened during my son’s birth.
I told her about the charge nurse “helping” me push. How she told me she was placing her hand inside me to show me where to push and a few moments later I was in immense pain. “That hurts! That hurts! Please stop,” I begged her. She ignored me. She didn’t even tell me what she was doing. I overheard her tell another nurse in the room that she was “trying to move a lip of cervix out of the way.” I begged her again to stop and she barked at me that “This is hard work! This is the hardest work you’ll ever do!” That was not helpful after 29 hours of labor and she still did not remove her hand. It wasn’t until many minutes later that she removed her hand, not because of my pleas, but because of her own volition.
“Gretchen. She assaulted you,” my friend told me. I was hesitant to agree. All of the other nurses at the hospital were amazing. My doctor was kind and competent. How could I have been assaulted? But she was right. She did not have my consent. She did not stop her actions (that by all accounts and records were not medically necessary for myself or my son) after I asked her to. I tried to reconcile her actions by digging through every medical note in my record. Dozens and dozens of mundane pages that noted nearly every action and every vital sign, showed that in that moment and the surrounding moments, my son and I were stable.
There were so many people in that room, but it may as well have been just me and the charge nurse. I felt alone and trapped. I was unable to move and at the mercy of someone who was supposed to help me. Someone I had been taught to trust unquestioningly.
I looked for statistics and resources for women who were assaulted during childbirth. I found no readily available statistics and very few resources. A few articles turned up of women who felt coerced into c-sections or given episiotomies without consent. Although their feelings were similar to mine, I had not been coerced into a procedure. So I turned to a couple of mother and birth groups on Facebook. Anecdotally, several women came forward to tell me they were assaulted during birth. One woman’s story was almost identical to mine.
I turned to find a legal definition of assault and found it matched my experience. “Intentionally putting another person in reasonable apprehension of an imminent harmful or offensive contact. Intent to cause physical injury is not required, and physical injury does not need to result . . .” There were two other medical professionals in the room during my assault. No one said a word or questioned her actions. How many other women are left feeling violated after birth and both unable to recognize they were assaulted and also thinking it was acceptable because no one batted an eyelid?
I understand that it is not always possible to obtain consent or inform a patient of what’s happening in a medical situation. However, at the time, neither my son or I were in distress. No lives were being saved or catastrophes avoided. I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect that I be told what’s happening and listened to when I protested.
I’ve written the hospital’s patient relations to bring their attention to this issue, but even if they listen to my every word and speak to staff about the importance of consent and providing information to patients, I am still in the same place.
I still want more children and am left terrified of giving birth. I still panic when I see pregnant women and newborn babies. I still cry when I think of my son’s birth. I still have intrusive thoughts and nightmares about something that should be one of the happiest days of my life. Therapy is helping but it is a long, long road ahead.
Until informed consent is the norm during birth, doulas can help tremendously. Doulas provide support for mother and partner during childbirth. While they are not medical professionals, they know what is normal and what is not. They advocate for those who cannot find a voice, are too tired to express themselves, or too overwhelmed to help. The doula who taught my natural childbirth class says she often, very loudly, asks “Did she consent to that?!” when a care provider is going against a birth plan.
I thought we wouldn’t need a doula. I also thought my labor would be over in less than 24 hours. Perhaps if I had a doula, she could have spoken up for me. Though there is no use in “what-iffing” all day, I know that I will never labor without a doula again. Extra support is not a bad thing during something as stressful and unfamiliar as birth.
Our society’s understanding of assault and consent have come a long way, but there is so much further to go. The importance of informed consent during childbirth needs to be heeded with as much care as it does in any other medical situation. One non-profit group has made a start by codifying Human Rights in Childbirth. If every care provider could subscribe to these basic principles of autonomy and informed consent, childbirth could happen in a much safer space for women. Advocate for yourself, find people to advocate for you, and advocate for others. Birth should empower women, not strip them of their autonomy.