Hungarian midwife Agnes Gereb changing the world
Hungarian midwife Agnes Gereb may not have set out to change the world, but she is. Back in March, The Vancouver Observer published an article on Gereb’s case of unjust imprisonment for practicing home births, asking readers to sign a petition asking the Hungarian government to grant her clemency. At the time, she was just days away from a return to jail after prolonged house arrest.
Gereb, throughout her career -- first as an obstetrician, and now as a midwife -- has been routinely and unfairly apprehended for her progressive and humanistic treatment of birthing families.
When she first wished to include fathers in the birthing room of hospitals during the 90s, she was suspended from her practice for six months. The hospital later boasted theirs to be the first in Hungary to allow such progress.
Now, as an internationally celebrated midwife and teacher who has safely delivered over 9,000 babies and trained and collaborated with international experts, Gereb remains persecuted by Hungarian health and legal authorities.
Midwives denied in Hungary
Because Hungarian midwives have been denied professional regulation despite 22 years’ worth of petitions, any medical issues that arise during a home birth requiring a hospital transfer instantly come under criminal investigation. They are then tried in courts, where obstetricians with no experience in home births are brought on as expert witnesses.
Because of this corruption in Hungary's medical and legal systems, Gereb is being unfairly tried in six cases, one of which involves an infant death - a tragic but sometimes natural part of birth. In all cases except for one, where a child incurred an injured shoulder, the parents sided with Gereb in the cases.
“I'm hopeful that President (János) Áder will have the wisdom to grant clemency,” commented Nick Thorpe, BBC correspondent in Hungary and father of five children -- all of whom were born at home with Gereb.
“Every country needs a wide choice in birth care. Agnes Gereb's only 'crime' has been to represent the most active pole in a country where most doctors demand passive, obedient mothers. There is also a great need for an independent audit of maternity services in hospitals, so parents know what they are being offered, and for midwives to take over from obstetricians as the main attendants at birth.”
It’s hard to tell why Gereb has been kept under house arrest and not returned to jail since the March article. It could be because of the unrelated, forced resignation of the Hungarian President Pal Schmitt just two weeks after her scheduled return, or because of the multiple petitions requesting Gereb’s clemency. It could also be due to the recently publicized 2010 European Court for Human Rights judgement, inspired by her case.
The European Court of Human Rights decision
Thorpe, along with several human rights lawyers and birth experts, was shown speaking about the European Court judgement in the screening of documentary, Freedom For Birth, which premiered last week in 56 countries and 1,000 locations worldwide.
The documentary told the story of one of one of Gereb's clients, Anna Ternovszky, who had a successful home birth under Gereb's care in 2009. Being aware that Gereb would not be available to tend to her second birth, Ternovszky made an unprecedented move by taking her concerns -- while pregnant -- to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
In 2010, while Gereb was being criminally tried, the ECHR ruled that Ternovszky's rights as a mother would be violated if she could not choose to have a home birth with a midwife in Hungary.
“I did it because I started to feel that I had a fear while I was pregnant with my second baby," Ternovszky said.
"If a woman starts labour at home and goes to hospital, then the hospital looks at them like they are strangers, and are arrogant and rude with them. The system makes all the women, including me, to feel this fear during birth.”
When asked if she knew the implications of her submission to the European Courts, Ternovszky confided:
“I didn’t feel I would win. I just felt I had to do this. I still have a hope that the decision in Strasbourg will help them [the Hungarian authorities] understand they have made a mistake and try to see Agi (Agnes) with the same lens that they see all the other doctors with.”
Toni Harman, one of Freedom From Birth’s filmmakers, said the ruling by the court in Ternovszky's favour was a potential game-changer for Hungary's women.
“The Ternovszky vs. Hungary ruling at the European Court of Human Rights in 2010 means that if a woman feels like her Human Rights are being violated because her birth choices are not being fully supported, she could use the power of the law to protect those rights."
"Our film has the potential to spark a revolution in maternity care across the world. In fact, we are calling this the 'Mothers’ Revolution'.”
Birth’s long-term effects on a person's life
Prenatal and birth experiences have long been scientifically proven to shape life, linking adult-aged violence, drug abuse, and suicide to painful or drugged experiences at birth to drug and painful instrument use at birth.
Midwives and home births are known to decrease the rate of cesareans by 50 per cent and the use of drugs and forceps by 30-40 per cent. Invoking this legal precedent can potentially improve health outcomes for an entire generation over its lifetime and lighten the load on the penal, and social systems.
Although Hungary’s new President was appointed in May, Gereb is not yet free. Hungarian midwifery continues to be denied necessary licensing to enable people like Gereb to be tried by peers, rather than by those in the medical profession who are opposed to her work and have no experience with home birth.
The power of the public is the prime mover in this debate. Advocates and readers in the West know the tremendous influence they wield in Gereb’s case, and indeed in all cases of healthy birth around the world.
Freedom For Birth’s slogan, “Save Birth, Change the World” is no understatement: a woman's ability to choose her birth and a midwife's freedom to practice her profession is nothing short of revolutionary.
Readers can get involved by signing a petition requesting Amnesty Europe to help protect Hungarian and other European midwives who are persecuted and denied the right to professional licensing.
As paradoxical as it may seem, if Hungary grants Gereb full clemency, the choice will define the country's leaders as heroes.
For more, see the One World Birth website.