Unhappy Birthdays, Part 3: Why "birth rape" continues to happen
Jesusa Ricoy-Olariaga has learned much from the mothers who send their pain down the telephone wire to her position at a birth trauma helpline. She’s learned not only the “whats” of birth rape, but some of the “whys”.
“Women live in a birth system that is industrial, a conveyer belt, and the baby is some kind of product,” she said on the phone. “You have a scar, you may not be able to sit for six months, but hey—you're alive, after an experience that is almost near death.”
A pause. “Or at least, that’s the way the media portrays it.”
Few relationships can survive without a support system. This is no different for the power relations within the birth rape issue, which are supported by a hospital culture that often prioritizes efficiency ahead of mothers' well-being.
When she gave birth to her son there in November 2010, the staff kept telling her they “had to do certain things”, regardless of her will, simply because their schedules were so full.
“We're trying to overcontrol birth [with a] completely disproportionate behaviour,” Ricoy-Olariaga said. “We think technology will save us, but when it comes to giving birth, it can be damaging. We have such an awe of technology, we can't accept that it's actually hurting women.”
Are the time-saving advantages of technology worth the industrialization of birth?
According to a 2010 World Health Organization report, there is “no justification for any region” to have Caesarean-section (commonly known as "C-section") rates higher than 10 to 15 per cent. But in the same document it says that, in 2008, Canada had a C-section rate of 26.3 per cent.
The almighty doctor
“Obstetricians operate according to what they believe will produce the ‘good’ outcomes of a live mother and healthy baby,” said Jessica Austin of her experiences as a doula. “I think this makes many people hesitant to call actions by health care providers ‘violence’.”
But without mentally and emotionally healthy mothers, healthy babies can’t exist.
Christoff believes it should be possible to charge doctors with obstetric violence in Canada, like it is in Venezuela.
“Doctors are in a position of authority, of expertise. They do not testify against each other,” she said. Christoff talked to many lawyers about the assault she suffered during her birthing experience, but to no avail.
“I’ve been in touch with the patient care quality office, where you’re supposed to complain, but the people I’ve requested meetings with have refused.”
Nevertheless, Christoff also contacted the Canadian Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (SOGC), asking them to recognize obstetric violence and birth rape as problems in dire need of solving. She contacted them over and over again, as did at least five other women with the same concerns, according to Christoff.
To date, none of them have received any answers to their requests, apart from repeated promises to “look into it further”.
This reporter emailed the SOGC, asking their opinion on birth rape and obstetric violence through the Director of Communications and Public Education, Natalie Wright.
“This is the first time this issue has been brought to my attention,” Wright wrote in an email dated March 28. She recommended communication with other organizations, in lieu of the SOGC.
When she was reminded of the fact that birth rape is well within the SOGC’s jurisdiction to discuss—as, according to their own mission statement, it is the Society’s responsibility “to facilitate change in relation to issues affecting obstetrics and gynaecology,” to promote “patient safety," and to “be visible through advocacy efforts in support of women’s health”—email communication with Wright effectively ended on her side.
Complain with all your strength
Austin said the hard part for her is raising awareness about this issue without speaking to the cultural narrative that birth is a terrifying medical emergency.
“Birth can be such a beautiful, intense, natural experience,” she said.
Ricoy-Oliaraga concurs that violence during birth is normalized, so much so that women who do endure birth rape are benighted from its reality. “Women think, maybe it wasn't that bad. Maybe I’m insane.”
A woman who suffered birth rape in 2009, but wished to remain anonymous, admitted she felt that denial.
“Our pain is chalked up to, ‘Oh, she's just being emotional... She's being a woman,’” she elaborated. “That our pain could come from a very real trauma is not often believed.”
Ricoy-Oliaraga does not want obstetric violence against mothers to be swept under the hospital bed any longer. When asked what her advice is to survivors of trauma, she urged that they must complain -- and complain loudly.
“Complain with all your strength,” she said. “If at any point you felt, ‘I lost control,’ or, ‘They didn’t listen,’ or you feel hurt emotionally to a level that is still disturbing, complain. Found a group. Join the Revolution of Roses.”
Christoff pointed out that child sexual abuse by family members was once seen as something so awful it couldn’t be true.
“Each kind of trauma started out as something taboo.”
Started out—those are the most important words, it seems, on considering the steps that have to be made to recognize and prevent birth rape in the future.
This story is the final part of a series on traumatic birthing experiences. Read Part 1, Why more mothers are saying they were “birth raped” and Part 2, The politics of "birth rape" and mothers with PTSD.