Advocates join Hungarian midwife Agnes Gereb's fight for home births

I dreamed I was Agnes Gereb, Hungarian doctor and midwife who was jailed by state authorites for her work in delivering babies in a mother's home -- something that is common around the world, but is criminalized in Hungary.

The only difference was I wasn’t in jail…yet. In the dream, I had a half hour before lock down and I knew there was no time; not for goodbyes, not to complete my life’s work, and certainly not to establish any form of justice.

Luckily, I awoke. But for some reason I’ve not been able to shake the cold and pressing feeling of imminent incarceration. Might it have to do with the fact that earlier that same night, I had agreed to write an article to help free her?

Next to air, food, and water, birth and death are the only other essential ingredients each of us is destined for. So after immersing in articles, films, websites, and interviews regarding Gereb’s case, it’s not surprising that her story presents a human rights issue with questions about Hungary’s democracy running a close second.

Hungarian health authorities resist midwifery

Birth in Hungary stands where we stood in the United States-- quite honestly about 30 years ago,” said Elizabeth Davis, founding board member of the International Alliance of Midwives.

“The European nations that have autonomous midwifery have the best outcomes. The mothers do better, the babies do better, the society does better”.

Indeed, eighty years of medical research does show that birth has long-term consequences on health. For this reason, the World Health Organization cautions that no more than 15 per cent of births should be by caesarean. Statistics show that midwives decrease the rate of cesarean sections by 50 per cent, the use of drugs during birth by 30-40 per cent and the episiotomies (when the mother's vaginal opening is cut during childbirth), by 75 per cent.

Knowing this, Hungarian midwives, led by Gereb, have petitioned Hungary’s government for the necessary license granting them autonomy. Despite their consistent attempts, they have been rejected for the past 22 years. Because Hungarian health authorities oppose the practice of midwifery, midwives are left open to criminal investigation every time a home birth takes place.

On the rare occasion, a midwife deems it important for a birthing mother to go to hospital. In Hungary, an ambulance arrives accompanied by police and often the press. .

The police intimidate the birthing mother, the father, and the midwife,” said 35 year-old Orsi, whose friends have had home births. “Then, they (Hungarian doctors in hospitals) will leave the child for up two hours if they know it came from Agnes or a midwife just to make the situation worse."

“I hope I will never be forced to give birth in a Hungarian hospital because I’d be scared for my child.”

Gereb’s arrest

Gereb was placed under pre-trial detention on Oct 8 , 2010, after a pregnant mother, who due to abnormalities had earlier been instructed by Gereb to give birth in hospital, presented at Gereb’s clinic already in labour. The baby was born unusually fast and before ambulance could arrive. Police immediately arrested Gereb and seized all documents in her clinic. At the end of 2010 she was released into house arrest.

On Feb. 10 , 2012, the Budapest court made a ruling, sentencing Gereb to mandatory two years in prison with a 10-year prohibition to practicing obstetrics or midwifery. Six other midwives have also been on trial. Gereb has been quoted saying she sensed being set up for two years before her Oct. 2010 arrest.

Hungarian-born Vancouver psychologist Andrew Feldmar, whose work is highly regarded in Hungary, spoke up against the persecution of Gereb and other midwives.

“Let’s get out of the dark ages where women who were envied, were accused and declared to be witches, then sentenced to be burnt," Feldmar said. " OB’s (obstetricians) are threatened, jealous, feel left out, and out of greed and conservative fear, want to postpone the moment when it becomes obvious that things need to change.”

“It’s about biopolitics, about who has the power to make life/death decisions when someone is weak like during birth, death, madness, and illness.” 

This proposed 21st century “witch hunt” might explain Gereb’s “special” treatment in court and in jail. During one hearing she was brought in and made to sit in hand cuffs, leg cuffs and leg irons for hours without water, leaving a ten-inch gash in her ankle.

While in jail, she was subjected to strip and body cavity searches before and after every visitor. Assuming it was common practice, she shared this with inmates only to discover through their astonishment that she was receiving “special treatment”.

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