Birth Is a Human Rights Issue
by Jan Tritten
© 2009 Midwifery Today, Inc. All rights reserved.
[Editor's Note: This editorial originally appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 92, Autumn 2009/2010.]
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”(US Declaration of Independence)
Every mother and baby has the right to be treated with reverence and respect during the birth process, including pregnancy and beyond.
When a woman becomes pregnant, she and her baby have unalienable rights. First, the right to life: In June of this year, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a landmark resolution acknowledging maternal mortality and morbidity as a human rights issue.(1) The adoption of this resolution prods governments to “change the way they view maternal death—that is, as a human rights issue no less serious than executions, arbitrary detentions, or torture.”(2)
Next, the right to liberty: The word “liberty” contains aspects of freedom, independence, autonomy, emancipation. These concepts are not usually considered in relation to the childbearing year. It is time to declare that mothers and babies have the right to liberty in pregnancy and birth.
Finally, the pursuit of happiness is of utmost importance to those of us who care for mothers and babies. Most births around the world lead to some varying degree of preventable trauma for the mother and baby. I say it is preventable because much of it is iatrogenic, caused by the doctor or midwife. In many cases, if the mother, baby and birthing process had been treated with respect, the trauma would possibly have never taken place. Instead, the mother likely would have had the most miraculous experience of her life. At the very least, she would have felt a part of the decision-making process if things still did not go as planned. Birth today is a doctor dictatorship in many practices and in many hospitals. Mothers and babies are missing the healthiest possible beginning, both physically and emotionally. Their human rights are being violated.
Pregnancy and birth are usually the most crucial and powerful passages in a woman’s life. This can be perceived by the mother as either a powerfully great experience or a traumatic ordeal. Mom will generally have one of these reactions and those feelings will last her entire life, even if they are buried in the busy job of mothering. She will either soar at the thought of her birth or be driven to the depths of sorrow, especially in this age of the cesarean cut. The same is true of the way the birth experience imprints on the baby. Though he or she may not consciously remember it, the experience will have many life-long effects on the child.