Birth Rape

Continuing in Dr. Rixa Freeze’s Born Free doctoral dissertation, starting on pg 118 of the pdf (pg. 104 of the dissertation), Rixa begins a discussion on “Birth-rape,” which is of course, highly troubling. Some women will choose to use the word “trauma” instead of “rape,” but the idea is definitely conveyed — outsiders doing things to a woman (specifically her genitals) against her wishes, and sometimes even against her explicit objections. The discussion goes on for several pages, and I think everyone involved in birth needs to read this, so that they can be more attuned to the concept — that some women feel traumatized by past births, or can become traumatized by future ones; that sometimes doctors and nurses can cause or contribute to those feelings; and that these things are real. Several women that were interviewed for this paper described previous birth experiences as either traumatic or “rape” — and this wasn’t restricted to hospital births attended by male doctors, but included births attended by female doctors and midwives in the hospital, as well as home births attended by a midwife. These experiences were so bad for these women, that the only way they could feel safe in birth was to go unassisted, since they could no longer trust medical personnel not to abuse their power as “professionals” or their office of trust.

One midwife who later came to believe that she had participated in “birth rape” said:

As I learned to be a midwife, I did horrible things to women in the name of education. I have held women’s legs open (“to get the baby out”). I have pulled placentas out (“to learn how to get one out that needs help or if the mom is bleeding”)….I have done vaginal exams on women who were screaming NO! I have coerced women to allow me into their vaginas for exams….I have manually dilated a cervix on a woman having a waterbirth (and I wasn’t wearing gloves) and got her cervical flesh under my fingernails.

As a doula and student, I stood by and watched as women screamed to be left alone. I watched midwives with 3 inch fingernails shove cervices from 3 to 10 [centimeters] in a few minutes. I watched as women had Cytotec inserted into their vaginas secretly….I have seen and heard women be screamed at to shut up, grow up, that she asked for it by opening her legs 9 months ago, that she gets what she deserves. I have seen a woman slapped by a midwife.

Rixa goes on to say, “Because such practices have become routine, few maternity care givers consider them abusive or inherently inappropriate.”

This is unfortunately all too true. You don’t have to look very far to find stories of women who were yelled at, sneered at, made to feel bad somehow (even stupid), forced to lie in bed, physically moved from a comfortable position into an uncomfortable one simply for doctor convenience, given unnecessary vaginal exams, given rough vaginal exams, cut unnecessarily, sutured unnecessarily, not given anesthesia for the suturing, etc. And this can happen even with “nice” midwives and “nice” nurses and “nice” doctors, which is the most troubling fact.

And this is why some women leave medical care and go unassisted — because they don’t like the way they were treated. After all, if you got raped when you went to a bar, would you go back to that bar again? I wouldn’t. And maybe not just that bar, but any bar, because that’s (obviously) where the rapists hang out, since one was hanging out there and raped you.

Average care in the early part of this century is better than average care in the 50s — there is more patient autonomy (no mandatory general anesthesia, major episiotomies, forceps births, etc.); but just because it’s better than it was doesn’t mean it’s as good as it can ever be, nor as good as it should be. Just as hospitals looked closely at their policies in the 70s with the advent of the “natural birth” movement and reemergence of midwifery, in order to keep women satisfied with giving birth there (not requiring general anesthesia any more, allowing husbands to be there when giving birth, making hospital rooms more “homey”), even so hospitals ought to look at their policies of today and address areas of discontent that many women have — including the area of loss of autonomy which the woman may process like rape.


13 Responses

  1. This post affects me on many levels – it makes me sad, makes me angry, gives me chills, and then makes me want to stress more and more to women that they MUST take control of their own care.

    I wondered what scarred me so badly about birth #1, why those hours still give me nightmares, why I don’t feel the same about it as I do the others. I now know I was a victim of “birth rape” in my first labor (told I would demand drugs, told I had no idea what I was doing, dozens of exams by people I didn’t even recognize, forced to lay in bed, forced into stirrups, cut right after I said to get the scissors away from me, etc.), and for the next three I learned the word NO. I came into the situation (unfortunately three more hospital births) letting everyone know *I* was in charge, I knew what I wanted and what I was doing, and was able to have three more non-invasive, beautiful pain-free natural childbirths. The only thing I would do differently is stay home. If God blesses me with #5, I won’t be making the drive to the hospital – it’s a waste of gas.

    Thank you for a great blog.

  2. I feel so blessed. I had my first child 8 months ago with a CNM at a birth center, and it was a wonderful experience. The midwife followed my birth plan and never did anything without first telling me or without my approval. I have since moved and plan on future children, but do not have the same options due to the size of the community I moved to. I am concerend that my future births will not go as great, just due to the stories I have heard from mothers around this area. I know many that feel that their births were traumatic.

    One thing that I believe made my birth so wonderful was that I educated myself on the birth process so that I knew what to ask for and what to say no to. I am now giving information to any pregnant woman that will listen, in hopes that their birth can be just as wonderful as mine was.

    If anyone is in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and needs the name of my wonderful CNM there, please contact me and I would gladly give it to you.

    JK, D.C.

  3. I would love to know who your cnm was please???

  4. Forty years ago I gave birth. It was the worst experience of my life: (I have had other worst
    experiences: cancer twice, nearly going blind, etc.) but giving birth was the worst. Never had another child. Did not want one, but had I wanted one I would rather die than give birth. Even now, seeing a pregnant woman makes me ill. It took 3 months for my body to recover.

  5. I am not yet pregnant (plan on beginning to try within a few months)..but, I believe that I was “raped” during my first gyno exam, and the fears from that are definitely affecting my desire to get pregnant. During my first exam, I was in a LOT of pain..the gyno kept telling me “It doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t hurt” and kept going..I was literally screaming in pain. The second exam (yes, I went back to the same one, dumb me!), I told her at the beginning the last one had hurt and that I was scared for it to happen again. She said it usually didn’t hurt the second time. It did. As she was down there, and the pain was unbearable, I asked her 3 times to “stop” and “take it out” but was ignored..she kept talking to the nurse in the room about how “it doesn’t even hurt” and ignored me.

    This year, for my third exam, I went to a new dr’s office..I told her about my other experiences, and the reason I had switched..she said that sometimes it does just hurt, so it’s not right to tell someone it won’t..and said she would go slowly and tell me what she was doing every step of the way. It was definitely uncomfortable while she was doing the exam, but it really didn’t hurt–I couldn’t believe it when she told me she was finished! I have no idea what the first dr did wrong/different, but I am so glad that I switched and hope that anyone else who is anyway uncomfortable with their dr will also keep looking until they find one who can give them what they need!

  6. I’ve been shocked at some of the birth stories I’ve read!

    I had my baby girl in Nov 09 at a public hospital – so I couldn’t choose my doctor or even see the same one. I saw the same registrar twice near the end of the pregnancy and he was very rough (even when he felt my stomach to check baby’s position it was very painful as he dug his fingers into me.) When he gave me a stretch and sweep I was in a lot of pain and was very glad my husband was there. This registrar then went on to say “See you Wednesday” and barely give me a choice about induction. I tried everything to get my baby out early, to avoid him. Thankfully I used castor oil and it worked. I ended up with a great birth with a lovely midwife.

    However I can totally empathise, I dreaded the idea of that registrar near me, I could imagine him bullying me into whatever suited HIM not ME, best. I’m so sorry for all those women who’ve been treated horribly by those who should help you through the greatest experience of your life.

  7. This is a very interesting thought provoking post and I find it difficult to read the examples. Stretching cervix to make it fully dilated?! I have a hard time relating to the examples posted.

    I work as a labor and delivery RN inside a teaching hospital and I also have given birth at the same hospital and I have never seen birth rape in all the deliveries, labors, assessments, etc. What I have seen is care providers going out of their way to ensure informed consent.
    I have seen care providers challenge each other on ethics before doing procedures and the patients rights always won. I have seen care providers grumble to each other because Ms. X refused a vaginal exam or didn’t want a speculum check because they ultimately respected the woman.
    I don’t know if birth rape is found more in the United States or different countries but in the Canadian hospital where I work I can be quite honest to say I have never encountered this in my practice.

    Very interesting blog post.

    • Oh, it happens in Canadian hospitals… at least vaginal exams, scheduling inductions, monitoring…
      It’s their policy to do vaginal exams… and unless you say no, they assume consent [I never said no, but could have done without the probing]. An intern talked about offering of membrane sweeps – that some women want it and others are content to wait. I told her I was one of those content to wait so she didn’t, and the next week – *maybe* because I didn’t say “no” the previous week [he wasn’t even in the room when I’d said that] – did that without asking – just assumed that I wanted it. The next week, I told him that I didn’t want that membrane sweep, that I hadn’t wanted it, and he told me that if I couldn’t handle that, then how could I expect to handle labour? He also made an appointment for a biophysical appointment in place of an induction… even though there was nothing wrong with my pregnancy. Then, when I went into labour, when I decided it was time to go to the hospital (I only went because of Group B Strep) – the first thing they did was put that monitoring stuff on me – without “informed consent” – just assumed. Policy, I assume. Because of their actions, my boy’s heart rate went down. He was ok up until then. So, yeah, there are doctors and nurses in Canada who do things *without consent*. This is in Fredericton, NB – there were only two good things about that experience: 1) one of my husband’s friends is a midwife and she said if I wanted her to be there, she would be and she was, as a support person (with the allowance of two in the room) The only time I said I was ok with a vaginal exam – was when she asked [because I wanted her opinion completely aside from anyone in the medicare system – didn’t tell her that though], and 2) ] the nurse at the end, when they *let* me finally eat or drink something [they wouldn’t let me because of a possibility of doing a C-section because of the heart rate – *because* of their not asking if I wanted the monitoring – the only thing they asked was if I wanted any pain medication, thankfully only twice], asked if I wanted some tea, which she brought since I said it would be interesting to try after I asked what kind.

      So, “informed consent” – “informed” – yes, consent – not.
      If I had known they were gonna put that equipment on (very reason I didn’t go to the biophysical profile appointment – although labour, no fear of forced induction), I’d have taken a chance on that infection. Baby was full-term [why for the induction – but really, only because there’s a 2% more chance of stillbirth after 42 weeks… policy of inducing at 41.5 weeks no matter what], and from reading, it seems… less risk then [for the infection]. They also didn’t put the IV in properly – had to fix it twice, and by the second time, I was shaking because I wasn’t getting any nourishment for strength – so yeah, they stuck that in without consent too, because that’s where I was getting sugar and water from…

  8. I have had 5 children, the first 2 natural…. I was induced with the first. Reading this has brought back things that i had not remembered not because i didnt’ watn to just because as time goes on you forget things.
    I was told that i didnt know my body as much as the medical team did and when i said that i was in labour was told that it was just the gel that was working well guess what i was and they sent my husband home.

    We are made to feel that they know more about our own bodies then we do but Girls here are the facts. Medical people should leave nature where its able to.. I have had C-Sections due to a life or death situation. But where it is able Women should be left alone to have there babies with out all the fuss that they come up with. God knew what he was doing when he made us.

  9. […] of birth trauma and birth rape, try this excellent post here, and further thoughts here and here […]

  10. My births have been too painful to even talk about. By painful, I am talking about how horrible I was treated and mistreated. Plus, one of my children ended up with brain damage and another ended up dead from mistakes made by the doctors. I wish wish wish many times over that I could go back in time and walk away and have a birth center birth or a home birth, or even unassisted. I know that my babies and I would have been safer if we never went to a doctor while pregnant. My only complications ever were caused by doctors. (think unneccesary early induction, the next induction was doing unwillingly when the doctor gave me medications against my will that caused the labor-I found out later when I read the medical records-that baby died, lies to do csects-claim of placenta previa that did not exist-that doctors partner told me the truth about it)

  11. I gave birth to my son almost 8 months ago, and until I read this article I didn’t have the words to explain the trauma I felt from my birth experience. I was “Birth-Raped” I actually went into labor all on my own, contractions were perfect, but I was forced to have pitocin for the convenience of my OB, had the nurse hold my hand down and ram the IV in after I had said NO several times, told I had no choice. Told not to be a baby when she jacked my pitocin up to 120 milliunits per minute, 4 times the FDA’s amount listed as OVERDOSE in the package insert. The Nurse was Very rough doing my exams, she threatened to kick my husband out because he had the nerve to question what she was doing to me. When she put the monitor on me she put it around the chair, basically tying me to the chair so I couldn’t move, wouldn’t let me eat anything, wouldn’t let me have even a sip of water even though my lips were cracked. I was forced to wait over an hour to push, when my son was crowning because the OB went home for a nap! Then I was forced to change position for the convenience of the OB, and then after telling them that I wanted skin to skin, and to breastfeed as soon as he was out, they put him on me to see his face and then took him away for more than half an hour. Then the OB yanked the placenta out, causing me to hemorrhage while in the shower, and then that combined with the pitocin overdose I hemorrhaged 3 hours later so bad that I had to have a MANUAL D&C because the OR was being used! so much pain, and for nothing. I am so thankful for your blog post. Next time I will make my voice heard, because I will NOT let that happen to me again! I want a homebirth for my next baby, and I hopefully will make it happen!

  12. […] this article, a midwife describes how she unknowingly participated in birth rape.  The sad thing is that so few […]

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