Brazilian mother Adelir Carmen Lemos de Góes was preparing for her third birth. Despite living in a country with one of the highest caesarean rates in the world (82% for those with private insurance and 50% for those without), she was looking forward to giving birth vaginally after previously having caesareans she felt were unnecessary.
However, in the midst of her labour, six armed police banged on her front door. Despite there being no question of reduced mental capacity, doctors had obtained a court order allowing them to perform a caesarean. Instead of meeting her baby on her own terms, Adelir was taken from her home, forcibly anaesthetised and operated on without consent. Campaigners met outside Brazilian embassies around the world to deliver a petition and protest against this case of violence.
As co-chair of the human rights in childbirth charity Birthrights, I see that all too often women’s rights are placed in a curious and frightening state of suspension when pregnancy enters the picture. Even in the UK, where a case as extreme as Adelir’s is unlikely to happen, a quarter of women reported that they didn’t consent to invasive obstetric procedures, and occasional court-ordered caesareans wobble perilously close to the line.
Human rights laws and many national legal frameworks – including our own – are very clear that pregnant women retain the right to control their own bodies. Yet the maternity system has for too long pandered to patriarchal assumptions that women are in dangerous competition with their foetuses and that the medical profession always knows best.
I am lucky to know many dedicated midwives and doctors who are the first to admit that in obstetric care there is frequently no consensus on what is the safest and most appropriate course of action. Adelir’s forced caesarean was performed because doctors believed a vaginal birth would put her baby at risk; despite a caesarean being statistically more risky for her and expressly against her wishes. Yet, as human rights barrister Elizabeth Prochaska explains: “Risk might sound appealingly scientific and rational, but it is not. The risk of uterine rupture after a previous caesarean is about 0.5%. Put another way, there is a 99.5% chance that it will not happen. Risk can never provide a sound legal basis for justifying an assault.”
“Assault” sounds like a shocking term when used to describe a medical procedure, but it is the legally accurate way to name intervention without consent. If Adelir’s case is to have one positive outcome, it should be that we start to call a spade a spade and stop a flawed ethical debate about the rights of an unborn child clouding the picture. Women make good and thoroughly researched decisions about the safety of their unborn babies, and those decisions are theirs to make.
We all know it is not acceptable to assault a woman, and by the same rule it is not OK to remove her from her home and operate on her while she shouts no. We feminists urgently need to extend the lens through which we look at reproductive rights to include pregnancy and birth. Every woman has the right to control her reproductive health; be that to choose whether or not to have a baby, or to choose how that baby enters the world.
Without a no-tolerance approach to rights abuses of birthing women, we are accepting a status quo that allows others to do with our bodies as they wish. It is time to shout in loud and unified voices that “we are all Adelir” and that we all deserve better. – By Rebecca Schiller © Guardian News and Media 2014
Image – AFP