Birth and politics, like women and politics have been at the cornerstone of some of the tensest historical and social upheavals of all time. From the Suffragettes of the late 19th and early 20th Century who were literally willing to give their lives for the right to vote, to the development of the contraceptive pill and the inevitable sexual revolution that followed in the 1960s – women have been fighting for equal rights for a bloody long time.
Some would argue that we’ve won the battle. That really, we should all get off our soapboxes and just get on it with it already. I’d argue that we are far from done. In fact, I’d go as far to say that if we’re not careful, the sacrifices that our mothers, grandmothers and even great-grandmothers gave to secure our emancipation in the 21st Century will all have been in vain.
History shows us again and again what short memories we humans really have. Recent political events around the world are sending a consistent message. We are entering a period of profound patriarchal conservatism – the likes of which we have not seen for at least half a century.
And it’s always the most vulnerable in our society who suffer; who become the scapegoats. Our neighbour suddenly becomes “the other”. The economically and socially disadvantaged slip even further down their already slippery slope. What used to be celebrated as culturally or religiously diverse suddenly becomes deeply suspect. And as women, we find ourselves yet again fighting for the most basic and fundamental of our human rights. When our reproductive and bodily autonomy rights are being threatened, we know we are in trouble. If we don’t heed this warning call now and act upon it, we are going to deeply regret our lack of actions in the future.
The signs are there. Sadly, they are everywhere.
Some of you may have come across Kelly’s* story. Kelly gave birth to her son two years ago in the United States following a brutal episiotomy that was performed without her consent. It was caught on video as Kelly’s mother was filming the birth on her phone. The footage has since been used as key evidence in Kelly’s malpractice suit against the doctor. You can read more about Kelly’s story here.
TRIGGER WARNING: Towards the end of the article, there is a link to the video taken of Kelly’s traumatic birth. It is very graphic and may upset viewers; particularly those who have themselves suffered birth trauma or sexual abuse. Viewer discretion is advised.
Kelly’s story – and the stories of many other women who have also been let down by a deeply flawed paternity system (and no, that was not a typo) have been championed by Improving Birth, a U.S.-based organisation committed to supporting women’s rights in childbirth. On November 1st 2016, Improving Birth joined forces with The Coalition of Improving Maternity Services (CIMS) and BirthNetwork National merging together as one powerful organisation.
Human Rights in Childbirth is another organisation that is doing tremendous work to support and uphold women’s reproductive rights. Founded by a group of human rights lawyers, the mission of HRiC is to advocate for the recognition– in policy and reality– of every birthing woman’s fundamental human rights.
Research suggests up to a third of women describe their birth as traumatic. Fortunately most quickly overcome this with good professional and family support. A 2002 Australian study from Griffith University revealed that up to six percent of women will go on to develop acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after childbirth. Clearly, something is very, very wrong with the way women are giving birth, not just in Australia, but around the world. Across the globe, women’s human rights are compromised and violated around childbirth.
Following the recent U.S. presidential election, our American sisters prepare to inherit a deeply misogynistic, racist ultra-right-wing conservative as their new president. A known sexual predator, President-Elect Donald Trump recently shared his personal views on abortion;
It’s hard to imagine, but with Trump’s ability to place several new Supreme Court judges in the position of ultimate legal power in the United States, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Roe v. Wade could be overturned and abortion could once again become illegal and driven underground. And we all know how that turned out.
Just a couple of days ago, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights made an important ruling on home births. You must read British documentary filmmaker, Toni Harman’s excellent summary of this ruling in the Huffpost UK, but the key takeaway is in the critical wording; “allowing home birth”. European countries now have wiggle room that allows them to essentially ban home birth altogether, which would mean that any woman who had a home birth or any woman who supported home birth would, in fact, be breaking the law.
When politicians, governments and courts of law determine our reproductive rights and how, where and with whom we choose to give birth to our babies, we have essentially handed over our most fundamental of human rights.
Birth always has and always will be deeply political. In many ways, birth is the ultimate expression of feminism and it is something we must all hold sacred and protect – because our lives literally depend on it.
*Not her real name.
Tanya Strusberg is the founder of birthwell birthright. She is a Melbourne-based Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator and a Fellow of the Association of Certified Childbirth Educators (FACCE). She is a passionate advocate for women’s maternity care and her articles have appeared in The Journal of Perinatal Education, Australian Midwifery News, Science & Sensibility, Interaction – the journal of the Childbirth and Parenting Educators Association of Australia (CAPEA), Empowering Birth Magazine, Rockstar Birth Magazine, Mum’s Lounge, Go Ask Mum and Whole Woman. Through her internationally-accredited Lamaze Educator Training program, she is very excited to be training a new generation of Australian Lamaze educators. Last, but absolutely not least, she is also the mum of two beautiful children, her son Liev and daughter Amalia.