"Obstetric violence is the act of disregarding the authority and autonomy that women have over their own sexuality, their bodies, their babies and in their birth experiences.
"It is also the act of disregarding the spontaneity, the positions, the rhythm and the times the labour requires in order to progress normally when there is no need for intervention.
"It is also the act of disregarding the emotional needs of mother and baby throughout the whole [childbearing] process"
Jesusa Ricoy-Olariaga 2014
Today I want to carefully reflect on a couple of births and other maternity experiences that are very close to home.
I want to carefully measure the maternity culture that I know and participate in, in and around Melbourne today.
I want to ask in what way I am contributing to obstetric violence.
I want to seek ways by which adverse aspects of a culture can be changed.
[Please note that names and some of the details in the cases have been changed for anonymity]
Case study 1
Bess was a 30 year-old, carrying her third child, planning homebirth. I have been her midwife for each of her births, and her first and second baby were born at home in my care.
At about 36 weeks, Bess visited her GP, who looked at her abdomen, and said her baby was too small - growth restricted (IUGR). The GP quickly arranged an ultrasound scan, which appeared to support the diagnosis, and an appointment for Bess at the tertiary hospital. The GP spoke to me about her concerns, and I wondered if I had missed something.
.... fast forward to 38 weeks
Bess was advised to go to hospital to have an induction of labour. She asked me if I thought her baby was too small. I did not. However, I told her "If I'm wrong, and there is a valid reason to get this baby born (as she had been advised by the hospital and the GP), you have more to lose than if I'm right."
... fast forward to a couple of days after the birth of her baby (whose weight was well within the normal range).
Bess told me she did not feel traumatised by the experience: rather, she had faced the challenge head on, and accepted the intervention of induction of labour by artificial rupture of the membranes (ARM). She had progressed unmedicated, and gave birth without assistance to a healthy baby boy. When she was told, a couple of hours after the ARM, that it was time to commence IV Syntocinon, she declined and was quite definite about not needing further intervention. She knew from the tone of the contractions she had experienced that her baby was on his way.
Obstetric violence monitor (using the above definition):
-1 Bess was pressured by (albeit well-meaning) doctors and maternity care system that introduced fear of harm to her baby, when in fact her pregnancy was progressing normally
-1 Spontaneous onset of labour was denied
+1 Bess was able to decline further intervention after the ARM
+1 Bess considered that, despite experiencing pressure to comply with medical plan, her decisions had been respected, and she felt emotionally supported
Score: Pass - Case 1 is not an example of obstetric violence
Comment: There are many contributing factors in any decision-making. The choices that a woman has around her maternity care, and the decisions she makes at any time, are not equally weighted. The support she has, both professional (eg from a known and trusted midwife) and personal (eg from partner, family, friends) will probably influence outcomes, especially if the decision-making pathway is not clear.
Case Study 2.
Deb was a 38-year old mother who had had two caesarean births, both prior to labour. Deb wanted a VBA2C (vaginal birth after 2 caesareans) for this birth. She considered herself well informed about making this plan, and made sure that her written birth plan was included in her hospital record. She had felt cheated in her previous caesareans, and longed for the spontaneity and bonding between mother and baby in normal birth.
Prior to the onset of labour, Deb had some bright bleeding from her vagina. She went to the hospital, and had some electronic fetal monitoring and other investigations. The doctor told Deb that her baby did not seem to be distressed, but that he strongly recommended a repeat caesarean immediately. Deb explained to him that she would accept a caesarean birth, even though it was not what she had so much hoped and planned for, if the hospital would permit her to keep her baby with her, skin to skin, in the operating theatre, in the recovery room, and when they had returned to the postnatal bed. The doctor went away to make this arrangement, but was told the hospital did not provide staff for that option: that the baby and his/her father would be taken to the postnatal ward, and the mother reunited with them as soon as she was released from the recovery room.
Deb then refused the emergency caesarean. Deb's baby was, a couple of days later, still born.
Obstetric violence monitor (using the above definition):
-1 The emotional needs of the mother were disregarded
-1 The emotional needs of the baby, as understood by the mother, were disregarded
Score: FAIL - Case 2 IS an example of obstetric violence
Comment: Deb's case is clearly complex from an obstetric/medical point of view, and I have cherry picked a few facts in coming to my conclusion that this is an example of obstetric violence. The hospital disregarded the clearly expressed emotional need of this mother, and used inflexible staffing arrangements as the reason for denying her request.
In what ways am I contributing to obstetric violence?
There is no simple tick-box for obstetric violence in maternity care today. As evidence emerges about the finely orchestrated hormonal processes in birth and nurture of the new born child, the expectations of women will change. The providers of professional maternity services must also integrate the contemporary knowledge into our care.
One of my own babies was born with a fractured clavicle, and aspirated mucus, as a result of rather rough handling by the doctor. The mucus was cleared from her lungs using suction and percussion, and the clavicle healed as expected. But that child became fearful and anxious when ever her throat became inflamed. She had a definite memory of pain that had been caused by the failure of my accoucheur to permit me to give birth to her spontaneously. She had experienced obstetric violence. I did not feel or know that I had been traumatised - the requirement for me to be lying on my back with my feet in stirrups was standard at that time.
At about that same time, in the 1970s, there were dark and horrible secrets in many facilities where children received care. Predatory sexual activity, and physical and emotional abuse, were tolerated within the system. A blind eye was turned. It has taken several decades for the light of public scrutiny to be directed towards those institutions, and for the people who experienced such abuse as children to have an opportunity to tell what they can of their stories.
In reviewing birth as I know it in Melbourne today, I want to ensure that I and my colleagues are not tolerating - turning the blind eye - situations of abuse and violence against women and babies.
The maternity system as we know it today does not protect, promote and support natural physiological processes in birth and nurture of babies. It does not follow the standard, that "In normal birth there should be a valid reason to interfere with the natural process." (WHO 1996)
It is possible that future generations will look, aghast, at the way mothers and babies are being treated in the early 21st century, in the same way that we are shocked by revelations of institutional abuse of children in the C20.