• Tue, Mar 12 2013

The Term ‘Birth Rape’ Hurts Both Moms And Sexual Assault Survivors

birth rapeBirth rape. It’s the relatively new term used by some to describe awful labor and delivery care where a woman’s personal choices are disregarded. It often involves doctors or midwives shoving fingers or other medical instruments into a woman’s vagina during childbirth without any warning, and sometimes even continuing after the woman screams out in pain or loudly objects. The term has continued to morph and has lately been used to describe cases like Lisa Epsteen’s, whose doctor threatened to call the police and force her to have an emergency c-section because he was worried about the health of her child.  The problem is that this new bit of progressive vocabulary hurts both birthing rights activists and sexual assault survivors.

I am a rape survivor. As in, I was drugged by a female acquaintance and her boyfriend over dinner and woke up naked in their shower the next morning with only vague and horrifying flashbacks of what happened in the intervening 12 hours. For quite a while, even my sexual assault wouldn’t have been classified as “rape” because it wasn’t violently forced upon me. My consent to sex was taken while I was unconscious.

I also happen to have had horrible prenatal treatment from emergency room personnel at my local hospital while being treated for an ectopic pregnancy. I didn’t have random objects shoved into my uterus without warning or consent. In my case, I was mostly ignored and left without information while in extreme pain. I am not equating my story with some of the awful experiences of women who experience birth trauma, but I do think that it’s important to note that I have a healthy skepticism of the omnipotence of doctors working in obstetrics.

Let me just say that in my personal experience, the two situations were in no way equivalent. For me, there is no universe in which awful medical care should be equated with sexual assault. The two are so different in a million important ways that I honestly cannot understand how people feel comfortable comparing the two.

Both situations involve levels of consent and communication. Both involve reproductive organs. Honestly, this is where I believe the two issues separate.

I am not trying to insult or marginalize the suffering of women who suffer awful childbirth care. I do not think it is too much to ask that doctors and nurses speak with their patients about what’s happening and listen to their concerns. If a doctor says they’re going to check your cervix and you say no, for any reason, they should stop and discuss the issue further with you. They should ask why you object and do what they can to work with you. And when this doesn’t happen, I think women should be vocal in speaking with hospital or healthcare administrators. They should file complaints and share their grievances.

The rights of pregnant women are important. Lisa Epsteen should not have been threatened with police force to make her have a c-section. (At the same time, her decision to ignore the doctor’s insistence on an emergency Cesarean sounds reckless and dangerous for the life of her child.) I think that most mothers would agree that we should be supportive of one another’s rights and ability to, within reason, have the birthing experience that they choose. Most importantly, we should be focused on making childbirth healthier for everyone involved.

But to co-opt the word rape will not reach that goal. As a term, the definition of rape has been seen as debatable since it was first conceived. There are still people who believe that my rape wasn’t real rape. It’s date rape. We still have politicians talking about ‘legitimate rape.’ We still have legislative arguments over spousal rape. The world of sexual assault is filled with syntactical debates. There is no need to muddy those waters further.

I realize that the term “birth rape” brings attention. I think that’s why it was first used, because it was inflammatory enough to get people to look into the matter. I suppose in that end, it achieved the goal of birthing activists. But that doesn’t make it correct. It doesn’t make it appropriate. And the continued use of it draws away from the serious matters being discussed, because it puts the debate on the vocabulary instead of the real issue.

Birthing trauma is real and the women who experience it deserve our support. But rape victims have fought to get their assaults taken seriously. Throwing around that often  misunderstood and controversial word just to get attention doesn’t help women, no matter where they stand on these issues. It makes it more difficult for all of us to be taken seriously.

(Photo: Mirko Tabasevic/Shutterstock)

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  • http://twitter.com/PortraitOfMmeX Madame X

    I think that being mistreated and ignored for your ectopic pregnancy is not the same as having medical procedures forced upon your vagina, and that birth rape is actually a pretty fitting term for the latter. I understand your concern that it may water down the potency of the word rape in a discourse that already treats it too lightly, but I think rather than threaten your experience as a rape survivor, it instead brings an important and useful element to the discussion of reproductive rights and consent. They intersect very meaningfully both in the broadest definition of rape and in the realm of reproductive health and choice.

    • the_ether

      Right – any instance of non-consensual penetration is rape.

  • belongtotoday

    I agree with the author. I’ve read my share of horrifying birth accounts where women were not given choices about procedures, things were done without specific consent, birth plans were wholly ignored and even up to the point where women have lost custody of their children because they wanted to room in, breastfeed, cosleep or whatever else that the hospital disagreed with. So of course I realize that it happens.

    However I think medical bullying is precisely that; Medical bullying. I think it would do more good for the movement against that to have their own name and term instead of riding the coattails of other crimes purely for sensationalistic value. I think medical bullying is absolutely real and out of control and wrong, but it is still medical bullying, not rape in my eyes.

    Another bothersome thing is that I’ve seen the term birth rape be thrown around ridiculously. Women cranky that they didn’t get the birth they wanted saying that they were victims of ‘birth rape’ when in fact they fully admit they consented to every procedure. If there’s consent, it’s not rape, no matter how disappointed/frustrated/annoyed/etc you are that things didn’t go the way you wanted and no matter who you blame for that (the Nurses, the Doctors, etc).

    • http://twitter.com/PortraitOfMmeX Madame X

      There’s informed consent, and then there is consent. Too often I hear women who feel like they were not given the whole range of options and side effects when a convenient procedure is on the table.

      We do not call non-consensual penetration of the body bullying. We call it rape, or maybe assault. So no, this is not simply medical bullying.

  • lea

    “For me, there is no universe in which awful medical care should be equated with sexual assault”

    Even when the medical care IS sexual assault?

    I don’t think ANYONE would call what you went through in terms of your ectopic pregnancy rape.

    I’ve only ever seen the term “birth rape” used when a woman has been penetrated by a hand or instrument- not just without warning or consent, but even in the event she protests, says no, screams out for it to stop.

    I don’t care if you are in labour, unconscious or dragged kicking and screaming into a dark alley- if someone penetrates your vagina without your consent- that is rape.

  • Rebecca

    With my second child, the doctor, who i had never meet before and was extremely rude and aggressive towards me through my entire delivery, decided to stick his hand right on up there to “scrape for clots” right after i delivered my son. He was angry because my OB didn’t make it there in time and he had been sleeping. It was more painful then the actual birth.i had a super quick delivery so i didn’t even have an IV in yet.i yelled for him too stop and he just made a nurse hold me down.no explanations or apologies. While i definitely consider this a traumatic experience (my soon is 4 now and it still makes me angry) i really don’t equate it with rape. Maybe we should try to come up with a better term to describe it.

  • Lisa

    To be fair, I have read at least one medical provider comment that there are rare occasions where a doctor must choose between obeying a patient who is screaming “No! Stop!,” or continuing to administer medical interventions in order to save them or their child. When a woman is in the middle of an agonizing labor she may not be in her right mind. As such, she can’t always give informed consent to what the doctor needs to do to save her child.

    The example used, IIRC, was a serious shoulder dystocia in which the baby was in severe distress and needed to be gotten out and resuscitated immediately. The patient came into the ER in severe pain and nearly hysterical, begging for someone to save her baby. The doctor acted fast once she realized the baby was trapped and being deprived of oxygen, but while she had her hand in the mother, trying desperately to free the baby, the mother started screaming at her to stop. As the doctor explained it, if she had listened to the patient, removed her hand, calmed the mother, explained the situation, and only THEN proceeded, the baby would have died or had severe brain damage. The mom wanted her baby to live, she was just upset and presumably in severe pain, and as such probably couldn’t understand that the doctor was violating her in order to help her child.

    Birth trauma (a much better phrase than birth rape) is real, and it absolutely is a problem that needs to be addressed. But there should be some understanding given to the medical providers. Not all doctors are evil monsters who live to hurt and demean women. Many are caring individuals who respect their patients, but must occasionally choose to sacrifice bedside manner for the safety of those in their care. Should the bad and needlessly cruel be punished? Yes, absolutely. But the idea that all hospital-based medical providers are cartoonish supervillains who just want to control you by forcing unnecessary interventions on you so they can steal your birth experience is absurd. Not every bad thing that happens (or, as belongtotoday says, that you consented to but regretted) is rape or trauma. Women need to get better at re-framing their experiences with the goal of having them and their baby be alive and healthy as the ultimate goal.

  • Carolyn Gall

    I experienced birth rape and yes it was a rape in the sense that I did not consent to the things the Dr. was doing. I had no pain medication and she was hurting me on purpose to teach me a lesson. In my case it was her power that she was wielding and it made me feel powerless and traumatized. I will have emotional scars for the rest of my life because of this experience. At the very least I am pressing criminal charges against the Dr.