A Declaration of the Rights of Childbearing Women
by Leilah McCracken

[Editor's note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today Issue 50, Summer 1999.]

Birth is easy. Obfuscating medical factoids make it hard. Modern obstetrical knowledge is based on false hospital outcomes; more is known about how bedridden patients give birth than how real, panting, sensual women give birth.

The wild animal inside each of us is anesthetized in a sterile environment—we cannot hope to explore our primal side in any hospital, nor even at home if our birth attendants are accustomed to working within sterile fields. Birth is not dangerous; birth need not be frightening; birth does not require people well versed in the abnormalities of childbirth to observe and record its every fluctuation. Birth needs to be trusted and believed in. Birth is safe.

Qualities inherent in safe, loving childbearing experiences must be recognized as the global rights of all women. Dangerous, dehumanizing medical procedures are violations against women's most basic human rights, and are also violations of children's rights to be born without undue pain and exploitation.

Birth's integrity diminishes as obstetric interventions multiply. The rights of women and babies must be recognized.

  1. All women have the right to sacred, fantastic, profound and loving birth experiences. Childbirth must never be viewed by birth attendants as routine, cumbersome or insignificant.
  2. Childbirth must happen in physical and emotional privacy. Women's vaginas in birth are as sacrosanct as they are at any other time; routinely penetrating them with fingers, forceps, scissors or hooks is a severe violation against the most fundamental rights of women to privacy and protection of the self. Women have the right to vocalize, move about, assume any birthing positions they like, and allow their births to unfold uniquely, without feeling the need to gain the acceptance and approval of their birth attendants. Women have the right to refuse birth attendants altogether. All hospital staff, midwives, family members, and friends of birthing women must have full consent before viewing the childbirth process. Women's bodies are never to be regarded as learning aids. No institution has the right to impose spectators on any woman's birth.
  3. Women have the right and power of "No": if they understand interventions and procedures and refuse to allow them to be implemented, their refusals must be respected by all medical personnel. Childbearing women will not be barraged with attempts at mind changing or browbeating.
  4. All women must be physically safe at birth. Instruments of routine interventions seriously harm the bodies of women: scissors, knives, harmful drugs, forceps, catheters, hooks, needles, fingers, tubes, and razors can be classified as tools of assault. Extreme caution must be used whenever obstruction of the natural birth process is considered.
  5. All babies, either in the process of being born or after their births, deserve not to be harmed: forceps, scalp hooks, violent extraction, careless handling, suctioning catheters, ventilating equipment, intravenous devices, and an oxygen-deprived birth environment—caused by either pain-relieving or induction drugs—all cause a great deal of distress to new babies and can upset their future well-being.
  6. All women have the right to complete and immediate access to information regarding all procedures done—either to them or their babies—in pregnancy, birth and the postpartum. Women must be informed of any potential harm of all procedures, regardless of the length of time the explaining takes (except in the most extreme cases). Women or their birth attendants cannot take "informed consent" lightly. Women have the right to be made aware of nonintrusive alternatives to common hospital procedures—such as the superior safety of giving birth at home, waterbirth as a safe method of pain relief, and the advantages of natural, private methods of induction of labor.
  7. It must be recognized as a criminal act to mutilate women's bodies in childbirth.
  8. All women must have easy, free access to information that illuminates the natural childbirth process for them—information that helps them prepare for their births and assists them in preparation for care of their newborns. This information must be given in a way that does not view birth as a dangerous, biological anomaly, but as a natural, joyous one.
  9. All women have the right to give birth wherever and with whomever they choose, and to know the safety statistics of any individuals and/or institutions they choose to give birth with/in.
  10. All women have the right of complete access to all their own recorded medical information, as well as access to knowledgeable people for whom the information poses no personal liability.
  11. The newborn must be viewed as a natural appendage of its mother. Mother and child must remain together, in quiet dignity, for as long as the mother desires. Handling of the baby by anyone other than its mother for the first hours of life is to be strongly discouraged.
  12. Ongoing breastfeeding information and support must be available to all women.
  13. The rights of women are inalienable, and will not be undermined by any government, male partner, professional birth attendant, nor any individual or group of individuals whose interests do not reflect the wishes of parturient women, regarding their own or their babies' safety and well-being.

Right now, no government can possibly mandate these rights; too many individuals and organizations are exploiting for their own gain women's basic needs to trust and to feel safe.

Yet birth cannot be safe when a woman's wishes are secondary to those of her birth attendants. Every woman must demand these rights; no one will give them freely to her. These rights are for women to learn and cherish. All enlightened women must inform other women of their inherent rights as women of the earth.

Freelance writer Leilah McCracken, mother of six, is the author of the soon-to-be-released book Resexualizing Childbirth. She writes the new "Birth Love" column for the weekly online newsletter the OBCNEWS www.moonlily.com/obc/obcnews.html, and her articles have appeared in various mothering publications. Check out her website www.birthlove.com.


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