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Why Bad Birth Experiences Are Not “Birth Rape”

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I’ve written briefly before about the births of my two sons – the first of which was a traumatic experience in a hospital, and the second of which was the antithesis of that: a homebirth with really caring, supportive midwives. During my first pregnancy, I never even considered homebirth an option for me; I liked my OB (who would eventually be part of that negative hospital experience), and I thought that giving birth at home would just be too messy and loud (we lived in an apartment building, and I kept having these visions of all of our neighbors listening at the front door – crazy, I know). But after falling victim to the “cascade of intervention” during my son Ben’s birth – I was tethered to a fetal monitor instead of allowed intermittent monitoring… which meant that I couldn’t move around to help make it through contractions… which meant that I eventually gave into the nurses and residents who kept pushing an epidural, when I had asked to try laboring with pain medication… which meant that my contractions slowed down and I had to be given Pitocin… and because of the epidural, I couldn’t really feel anything to help push when the time came, and I was on my back with my legs in the air and my feet in stirrups (not a great position for helping a baby out of the birth canal)… which led to my tearing… followed by an episiotomy I begged not to have… followed by fourth-degree tearing, which ultimately didn’t fully heal until after being stitched up after the birth of my second son two years later. And while all of this was going on, I got to listen to the chatter of nurses, residents, and my OB about how I wasn’t very good at pushing, how it was taking so long for me to give birth (two hours of pushing, 17 hours of labor in total), and how my son must be HUGE (he was just under 8 pounds) – in fact, a nurse actually climbed up onto the bed, in preparation to push on my stomach to help get my son out.

As a result of all of that, I feel like I have a pretty good sense of what a “bad” birth experience is, and I wasn’t even forced into a C-section. Granted, I know that this is far from the worst – but it was also far from how “good” birth can be, as I know from my second time around. All of this is to say that, as bad as some birth experiences may be, I cannot ever imagine equating them with rape, as the term “birth rape” obviously does. Amanda Marcotte, in her recent piece on Doublex.com writes that the term, coined to describe the trauma of a bad birth experience, ignores a crucial difference in intention: “The problem is that actual rapists have completely different motivations than imperious doctors who inadvertently traumatize their patients by pushing them around in the birthing room.” Indeed. I don’t think I truly realized how much I had been negatively impacted by my first birth until I had the opportunity to do it again, in a different setting, with people who were rooting for me and for the kind of birth I wanted. But I also don’t think that my OB and the hospital staff were actively out to harm me – they were just doing what they were used to doing and what was easiest for them.

When I was trying to decide where and how to give birth during my second pregnancy, I got a lot of flak from a wide range of people about my choice to try homebirth – people who claimed that my decision was irresponsible and dangerous, that my first birth experience hadn’t been that bad, and that I had gotten the most I could want from the birth: a live, healthy baby. I feel like most people take for granted that they’re getting a live baby out of the deal when they go into labor during a healthy pregnancy (not getting a live, healthy baby in the end goes far beyond a “bad birth” – it’s a tragedy, points out this wise woman). I also feel like women deserve more than just getting to go home with a live baby; they deserve to be respected in the birthing process, to have their voices heard, to have medical procedures explained to them in appropriate language, to trust their healthcare providers and all others in the room, to feel like they did something instead of just having something done to them, etc. If we want to advocate for better births, we need to try to foster better relationships with medical staff and change hospital policies to make them friendlier to birthing women. Demonizing doctors by equating them with rapists will only deepen the “us-them” divide, at the same time minimizing the trauma of actual rape and the power of its true survivors.

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