ARTICLE IV: Every woman has the right to be treated with dignity and respect
This posting from Lorraine Fontaine, Coordinator at the Regroupement Naissance-Renaissance in Montréal, discusses the findings of a qualitative research project on women’s perspectives (both negative and positive) of maternity care and why we must be more vigilant than ever about defending the right of every woman to be treated with respect and dignity during childbirth.
You might ask: Why do we still need to defend women’s right to be treated with respect and dignity during childbirth in the 21st century? Haven’t we been talking about this for over 30 years? You can’t be talking about birth in North America? And yet, these are the words of women who have given birth in the past 10 years in Canada.
“I found the hospital atrocious.”
“I felt powerless.”
“I found it completely unjust.”
“I felt alone and I prayed that my contractions would stop so I could just leave. One thing was certain. I never wanted to set foot in that hospital again.”
It is precisely because we are in an era of industrial childbirth when high-tech solutions are prized that we need to be extra vigilant about women’s rights. I work for an advocacy organization in Québec, Canada. We recently completed a qualitative research project on women’s perspectives of maternity care.
Women’s experiences of care that was disrespectful and non-dignified ranged from feeling that there was a lack of understanding of their concerns or a lack of information provided to them about procedures, to threats and manipulation to force them to conform to hospital protocols. Women spoke of being treated with contempt and even scorn, of feelings of mutual mistrust between them and their caregivers, and of being told they were endangering their baby’s lives if they didn’t agree to the hospital protocol. The high number of women who spoke of their birth experiences as disempowering, described a profound sense of loss, or spoke of their memories of childbirth as painful, heart-wrenching and unfair was disconcerting in itself.
In contrast, women who had positive birth experiences spoke of being listened to, of having their questions answered, of caregivers who stayed with them, and of flexibility in hospital protocols so that they could take the time they needed.
We say that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The same may be true of respect. The right to respectful and dignified maternity care is not only about whether caregivers feel they are being respectful, but more importantly about whether women feel they are being respected. In looking at hundreds of testimonials by women about their childbirth experiences we found significant cause for concern. Here are some of the experiences women shared with us:
“Encouraged by how much I had dilated, I asked to be allowed to ‘do it myself’ for a while longer. The anaesthetist was very annoyed by this ‘unusual’ request and told me authoritatively, ‘Make up your mind, I have other things to do, I’m expected elsewhere!’ This felt like a punch in the face: I understood immediately that she didn’t have time for me…”
“When I told my obstetrician how important it was for me to attempt a VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean), he told me that if I gave birth vaginally I would be risking my life and my baby’s and that he probably would have to do a hysterectomy…When I persisted, he answered that if I continued he would have me seen by a psychologist so he could straighten out my ideas. He said I was acting like a child and that I better start acting like an adult because I was going to have to take care of my baby soon.”
“I can still picture my first childbirth as if it was yesterday. Throughout the whole labour I was left alone in the cold with my fear by personnel that were too busy, stressed and under pressure. I was bound to the bed by an arm full of needles (oxytocin and glucose) and the foetal monitor, prevented from walking, drinking, or eating.”
When a collective call for human rights is strongly raised, resistance to that message can clamour loudly. Women, researchers, health care professionals and birth advocates the world over need to unite their voices to denounce the growing evidence of disrespectful and undignified care and open their ears to listen carefully to women’s experiences of childbirth.
Click the image below to see all seven articles of the Respectful Maternity Care Charter: The Universal Rights for Childbearing Women.