Issues

What Are Birthing Rights?

Giving birth is one of the most intense experiences a person can go through. Unfortunately, it can also be traumatic, especially when someone’s rights are violated. The most basic right is survival – the right to life – but beyond that, there’s the right to be free from discrimination, the right to privacy, and the right to autonomy.

Violations of birthing rights

Throughout the world, many women and people who can get pregnant do not receive the care or respect they deserve during childbirth. Research, experience, and case studies show that instead of receiving compassionate, high-quality care, people who can get pregnant experience “obstetric violence,” “dehumanized care,” and other abuse. Studies also show that mistreatment is more often directed at people from minority racial, ethnic, and religious groups; people living with HIV; unmarried women; women with disabilities; and others. Mistreatment includes physical abuse, non-consented clinical care, non-confidential care, detention in facilities, and denial of care.

In 2014, the World Health Organization took note of that evidence and released a statement saying, “Such treatment not only violates the rights of women to respectful care, but can also threaten their rights to life, health, bodily integrity, and freedom from discrimination.” In 2018, the organization issued new guidelines on global care standards in labor and after birth. Their goal was to reduce “needless and potentially harmful” clinical and medical interventions.

Examples of birthing rights

Birthing rights include the right to privacy, the right to autonomy, the right to life, and more. Here are some specific examples of the information and care an expecting mother deserves:

Care provider qualifications

Women have the right to know their care provider’s experience and qualifications. That includes their degree, how many years they’ve been working, and what type of clinical experience they have. How many C-sections have they performed? How many vaginal births? Under what circumstances will they recommend inducing labor? This kind of information can help a woman decide if a provider is the best choice for them.

Medical interventions

Women have the right to know what medical interventions may be performed, why they’re recommended, and when they may be performed. All medical interventions should be given with informed consent.

Pain management options

Labor is a very intense, painful experience. There are a handful of medical options for pain relief, including epidurals and spinal anesthesia. Women should talk to their care providers about what options are available to them and when they need to be given. As an example, hospitals will often not give an epidural after a certain time, so an expecting mother should know when that cut-off is.

Support person

In a facility, there will be a medical team on hand, but they are often very busy and a woman might be left alone at certain times. This can have serious consequences if something goes wrong and no one else is there. Most hospitals and birth centers have policies about the number of people in a delivery room. Up to three people is a common number. That could include a doula, a partner, family, or friends. Women also have the right to not have certain people in the room and to change their mind at any point. Facility policies can change depending on the situation (i.e. the Covid-19 pandemic has created issues) and women in labor are the most impacted by these changes.

Privacy

Giving birth is an extremely vulnerable experience, so women have the right to privacy. Policies vary. Some care providers require a team, while others just need one or two supporting staff. If a woman goes to a teaching hospital, her birth may be observed. It’s important to know this beforehand so a woman can consent to this observation or find another care provider.

Freedom of movement

Studies show that women who are mobile and in upright positions have shorter labors and experience less pain. Before labor, a woman is within her rights to ask how much freedom of movement she’ll be allowed. This includes walking around, getting on their hands and knees, and so on. Certain things like having an IV can make this movement more challenging, however, so it’s a discussion that needs to happen beforehand.

The significance of birthing rights

Women, girls and people who can get pregnant have faced continuous violations of their rights over the centuries. Gender inequality in healthcare remains one of the most pressing human rights issues. It makes sense that birthing rights are also threatened. When giving birth – a uniquely vulnerable time – women and people who can get pregnant are often not given autonomy and are instead subjected to the will of healthcare professionals. While treatment may be in the mother’s and baby’s best interests, a lack of compassion or good communication can make the experience unpleasant or even traumatic. If medical care is not adequate, the consequences can be fatal. The person giving birth – not the health provider – should ultimately be the one in control and empowered.

Further Reading: 
Human Rights in Childbirth
Birth Rights Guide
The Rights of Childbearing Women

About the author

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Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.