A US lawyer, Hermine Hayes-Klein, who specialises in human rights in birth was recently invited to attend her friend’s birth. What happened next was an extraordinary story of how doula support can make a huge difference to the outcomes of a birth.
Guest Post by Emma Ashworth
Permission has been freely given by “Sarah” to include her experience in this article.
For those who are not following politics in the USA, there’s one of those slow car-crash moments happening which could have a huge and profound effect on the culture and law around women’s bodies not only across the pond, but here also in the UK and Europe.
Brett Kavanaugh is an American judge who President Trump wants to promote to fill one of only 9 positions on the US Supreme Court. These positions are life long, and filling a Supreme Court position is how Presidents leave a legacy which could last for many decades. Bizarrely, although judges are expected to be impartial, these judges are chosen very much on their partisan opinions, and Kavanaugh has shown over the years that he does not support women’s reproductive rights.
The process to finalise Kavanaugh’s escalation to the highest court in the United States hit a last minute bump in what had previously been a very smooth road when a woman called Christine Blasey Ford made an accusation that when she and Kavanaugh were both teenagers – he 17, she 15 – he attempted to rape her and held his hand over her mouth in such a way that she feared that he would kill her. Subsequently two more women have come forward to accuse Kavanaugh of serious charges of sexual abuse. In a climate where the US President has been accused of sexual assault and rape by at least 22 women (whom he has called liars), and has himself boasted that he can “grab them by the pussy”, the climate for women who confront those who assault them is unrelentingly hostile. The Republican senators have almost unanimously closed ranks around their frat boy, protecting their own and perhaps also themselves… if one of them can be accused, why not all?
While Dr Blasey Ford goes through a partisan process where she is systematically ripped apart (who helps to put her back together again?), where Trump mocks her testimony to a crowd of cheering men AND women and the media is undertaking a trial-by-opinion, underneath it all is the same relentless, persistent, ruthless misogyny which underlines the way that women are treated following all forms of assault, including obstetric assaults.
While watching and reading about Kavanaugh I was reminded of a senior midwife who once berated me for supporting a woman who was, in her opinion, “just out to get” the midwife that she was making a complaint about. The birthing woman, let’s call her Sarah, had never met the midwife before she came to her in labour. Sarah had no personal reason to be “out to get” this midwife outside of the assault that Sarah explains happened to her during her birth. Sarah went through the complaints process with the hospital and, like most women who complain, was told all the reasons why she was wrong about what happened to her. Like the Republican senators, the Trust closed ranks and rejected Sarah’s complaint with a combination of rebuffs right out of the rape defence textbook, including lack of evidence, arguing that she must be wrong or have misunderstood, and attacking Sarah herself as being aggressive and abusive, as though trying to escape from what Sarah experienced as a desperately dangerous situation was unreasonable behaviour.
Sarah’s experience is not at all unusual. Like Kavanaugh’s snarling, angry attacks on those who were trying to untangle the complexity of a sexual assault allegation, the shocking concept that a woman could deign to raise her head to say “you hurt me” to those who are actually supposed to care leads to aggressive denials from both trusts and health care providers who fight back with arguments about “policy” or “guidelines” but who actually mean “we know better than you, how dare you question our power”.
The satirical news site “News Thump” put it brilliantly with their headline, “Man ridiculing victim of sexual abuse on world stage asks ‘why didn’t she come forward sooner?’” We could just as easily say “HCPs telling women they’re wrong about their birth experiences ask why women don’t make complaints about obstetric violence”.
I do see a light, though, and it’s a light made up of flames. I see women who are no longer willing to stay silent, and for every woman who speaks out either to her peers or in a complaint she lights a flame. AIMS reminds us that “It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness” and every flame that is lit shows the way for another, and another, and another. We will not be silenced and we will no longer be forced to be in the dark. Our flames are growing and our flames are joining. We are all the granddaughters of the witches that they did not burn, we are not going away and we are SHOUTING.
If you have experienced obstetric violence, or a birth which included an assault and would like help or support, you can contact the AIMS Helpline here.