Most people who are accustomed to living in countries which recognize basic human rights (which I would like to think is most people alive to day) would probably be appalled at the notion that a woman does not get to decide the circumstances under which she gives birth to her child. Yet this seemingly draconian position is one which in some countries was recently still maintained and is perhaps still maintained in some parts of the world where protection for basic human rights falls short. This article will discuss some of the more sensitive issues surrounding child birth, such as the right of women to give birth at home and the right to refuse medical treatment before, during and after child birth.
One recent case in point took place in Hungary, where until recently it was a criminal offence for a woman to give birth at home or anywhere else other than a hospital. Expectant mother Anna Ternovsky, wanting to give birth to her second child in the comfort of her own home, was faced with this obstacle of illegality. It was her intention to give birth with the assistance of her midwife, the amazing Agnes Gereb, who contrary to Hungarian law had seen and assisted mothers through somewhere in the region of a thousand home births. As was aptly noted in the documentary —- , in most places of the world this woman would be considered a saint for her actions. Yet in Hungary she was and continues to persecuted as an outlaw and a criminal, simply for guiding mothers through the intimate act of childbirth, an experience which is innately private and a choice which is demanding of legal protection. Found guilty of endangering life, Agnes was imprisoned for 2 years which she has served, however her licence to practice as a midwife is suspended for 10 more years.
Unwilling to accept the draconian Hungarian position on home child birth and wanting to secure the services of Agnes Gereb without fear of criminal prosecution, Anna Ternovsky engaged the services of human rights lawyers and ultimately they took their case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. The essence of their argument was that persons have a fundamental right to privacy in their homes, which includes the right of a woman to determine the circumstances of giving birth. Another glaring human right which comes into play in this case is that of any human being to decide whether or not to accept or refuse medical treatment. Obviously, forcing a mother to give birth in a hospital imposes a positive obligation upon her to accept medical treatment and is therefore at odds with the aforementioned right. The court found itself in agreement with Ternovsky and ruled essentially that all mothers have a right to decide the conditions and circumstances (which includes location) under which they give birth.
It is hardly surprising that Ternovsky and Company won their battle in the European Court of Human Rights at the Hague. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine that any court which purported to protect human rights, would rule otherwise. The Ternovsky decision is certainly a victory for human rights, most notably those of expectant mothers in societies where such members of the population are marginalised and indeed considered to have a ‘medical illness’ (being pregnant) which requires professional medical attention. Yet while noting this positive aspect of the case it is at the same time difficult not to notice the glaring inadequacies of some parts of the world to protect basic human rights. For medically related human rights are those which strike at the core of one of the most basic and fundamental of human rights, which is that of bodily integrity and the concomitant right not to have one’s own body interfered with against their wishes. It is frightening indeed to know that even in the new millennium there are parts of the world that are at odds with these most basic of rights.
While the main focus of this article is to highlight the importance of choice, specifically a woman’s right to choose how she should give birth – and indeed the broader issue of all human beings having the right to accept or refuse medical treatment and to make choices relating to their own bodies – it is also of interest to question the rationale of a society that demands that women be admitted to hospital and subjected to ‘professional’ medical assistance in order to give birth. For centuries prior to the existence of hospitals and modern medical professionals, woman have been giving birth to their children naturally and in the comfort of their own homes. Yet today it seems that women who give birth naturally are the exception and those that give birth through C-section, the rule.
While it is certainly not the intention of this article to disparage medical professionals – and it should be made clear that such persons are in most cases competent to deal with most health concerns – the sad reality is that the medical industry is not without its fair share of abuse and misinformation. Doctors are generally considered respectable members of society and people in whom patients can place their trust. It is partly for this reason that many expectant mothers, in their pregnant and vulnerable state, place unquestionable trust in their gynecologists. And while one might think that this is something which expectant mothers ought to do, it is important for them to ask questions and really try to understand their position, rather than just accepting as gospel, everything their gynecologist says.
Again, the aim of this article is not to discredit the medical profession, but the fact is that gynecologists do stand to make significant monetary gain from recommending C-sections to expectant mothers and the writer would question whether a C-section is absolutely necessary for some mothers. For surely a C-section should only be suggested as a last resort? Yet it seems that more and more pregnant women all over the world are being recommended C-sections and certainly in some places the percentage of pregnant women undergoing C-sections is higher than those that perform natural births. The question is: is this warranted? It is hoped that women will take more time to be educated, not only on the benefits of natural birth, but also on the risks associated with C-sections so that they can really apply their minds to making an informed decision about what is best for them and their child.