Chief Executive of Birthrights Fights for Maternal Dignity

Rebecca Schiller, author of Why Human Rights in Childbirth Matter published this month, recalls one chilling birthing event that propelled the former doula toward activism.

“I watched her shout ‘No!’ repeatedly while fingers, then instruments, were repeatedly inserted into her vagina. There was no ambiguity about her wishes, and no attempt to defer to them. She did not give consent but they carried on regardless, as if she was inanimate. I held her hand and soothed her, feeling complicit. Not knowing how to stop what was clearly an abusive crime presented as a matter of routine.”

For women who have been sexually abused, displaced, compromised physically, mentally, and/or economically, the loss of human dignity that often accompanies such “standard procedures” can be devastating to both mother and child. But all women are susceptible to mistreatment during childbirth. In 2016, an Alabama woman was awarded $16 million after suffering permanent physical and emotional damage when a nurse pushed her baby’s head back inside her as the baby was crowning .

A Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Deaths in the U.K. found ample evidence that how a woman is treated during childbirth (including but not limited to whether or not she feels physically safe), profoundly influences the way she comes to think of herself as a woman and mother. Those deprived of basic human rights during childbirth are more likely to view their experience through a “negative lens,” putting them at higher risk for post traumatic stress, even suicide. Conversely, women who are treated humanely, with respect and a feeling of safety, have reported positive emotional feelings about themselves and their newborns.

To address these complex issues, Schiller, 34, helped found Birthrights, an organization that employs human rights principles to improve maternal care, in 2013. “We have women in the prison system, migrants, undocumented, asylum seekers, trafficked women…” Many, who are marginalized and fear discrimination, do not get the help they need in the U.K. where maternity care is free.

This vulnerability during pregnancy is shared by women regardless of geography. Deadly Delivery: The Maternal Health Care Crisis in the USA, a 2010 Amnesty International report, assessed maternal health in the U.S. as a ‘human rights failure,’ infant mortality rates trumping those in other wealthy industrialized nations, despite greater healthcare spending. It should come as no surprise that the vast majority of these deaths are occurring in disadvantaged socio-economic sectors. “An anti-woman culture promotes an antagonistic discourse around birth and motherhood,” Schiller writes, “and I am not being hyperbolic when I say that what is happening in the U.S. to women’s reproductive rights, often via the back door of undefended birth rights, is terrifying.”

Schiller is quick to confess giving birth at home to daughter, Sofya, 6, and son Arthur, 3, were straight forward low risk affairs, if not without drama. A midwife was on route when son Arthur arrived, taking Schiller and her husband, Jared, off guard. “So many people ask if my husband delivered the baby. I tell them no, my husband was great during the whole thing, but I delivered the baby! I was the one who caught him on the way out.”

*Written by Hannah McCouch for Every Mother Counts

To learn more, check out Birthrights book club campaign, or check them out on twitter at @birthrightsorg.

More resources from Rebecca Schiller:

Preparing women with a history of traumatic birth for the next birth: a doula’s account

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