Birth Is a Human Rights Issue: A Movement

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 96, Winter 2010/2011.
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Jan with Carol Gautschi at the Strasbourg conference working on another presentation

Now is the time for us all to commit to working on this inalienable right, “Birth Is a Human Rights Issue.” I suggest using this phrase as a motto: “Every woman has the right to be treated with reverence and respect during the birth process, including pregnancy and beyond.” As we all know, nearly all motherbaby human rights are being egregiously violated around the entire world in the pregnancy and birth process, the time miracles should be happening. This affects all life. Mothers are traumatized and afraid of birth. They pass that fear on to their friends and it seeps into the culture. A traumatized mother often buries the pain so she can get on with mothering, even though a deep scar, often private, festers. We don’t yet know all the ill effects that will result from the current invasion on pregnancy and birth. One small example is the disturbance in bonding and breastfeeding, two very important aspects of new life. Our breastfeeding rates are abysmal, yet breastfeeding is the foundation that builds a healthy person.

It is important that you become involved with this issue so we reach critical mass sooner. Our work over the last 35 years is having a positive effect; almost everyone has heard of a midwife. When I first became a midwife almost 35 years ago people used to say, “A mid what?” They hadn’t even heard of the term midwife and barely knew what we did. They’d say, “Oh, I didn’t know those existed anymore.” Though we’ve come a long way, we have so much further to go. There is a strong, self centered, greedy and powerful medical strangle hold whose ideas have permeated birth culture in the entire world, and they will battle us every step of the way.

Birth as a Human Right is truly an issue whose time has come. Women, their babies and their families are being damaged every day; few are exempt from horrible birth practices controlled by a profession whose members have never witnessed a normal birth. Birth belongs to families. Midwives’ rights and mothers’ rights are being trampled in nearly every country of the world, recently notable in the witch-hunt currently going on in Hungary and France. From a Hungarian Press Release:

Dr. Ágnes Geréb, a 58-year-old Hungarian obstetrician and midwife with 35 years experience of attending birth, was arrested on October 5 at the birth-house she runs here in Budapest. This was the culmination of a 22-year campaign by the Hungarian medical establishment to criminalise Ágnes Geréb and those midwives who help her. Ágnes was taken away in handcuffs, and has been consistently mistreated in prison since then, including frequent strip-searches. She appeared in court in leg irons that caused a 10 cm wound on her leg. She is being treated like a murderer. Her lawyers have filed a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights about the conditions of her detention.(1)

And from France, where several petitions are circulating in support of midwives and homebirth:

A homebirth midwife, Elisabeth Lathuille, is prosecuted by her Regional Board of Midwives in France for several reasons; one of them is that she is working without insurance. It is mandatory for midwives to be insured in France, but insurance companies are charging for homebirths around 20,000 Euros a year: needless to say there is no way for any midwife to afford such an amount. The official fee that is reimbursed by our Social Security system for the whole 24/24 on call for one month, labour, birth and one week postpartum care, is altogether 312 Euros (yes! 312€), and, unlike obstetricians who attend normal births, midwives aren’t allowed to charge supplements for it.(2)

These countries are in the western world where there has been a stronger push for human rights. I realize most of you are doing many things to help this movement along, but can we all just commit to spending a little more time changing the world? There are many articles on our Web site that have great ideas, and more are included in this issue. Pick a few that resonate with you. If each of us works on affecting our sphere of influence—WOW, watch out world!

We need each of you to continue, and to expand, your work. One exciting part of our conference in Strasbourg, at which the theme was “Birth Is a Human Rights Issue,” was having 38 countries represented. We made a proclamation:

Here in Strasbourg, the Human Rights Capital of the European Union, we put a symbolic stake in this planet: We proclaim our right and responsibility to birth our children in the manner we desire and where and with whom we desire, honoring the normal physiology of birth and the scientific evidence supporting it, while acknowledging and claiming our right to the benefits of medical care when truly necessary. So be it on this day of October 3, 2010.

Countries represented: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, England, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Latvia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Norway, Oman, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Reunion, Scotland, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, Russia, and USA.

Here are some of the ideas we came up with at the conference, along with some great educational links. Marva Zohar, who was working in Uganda and could not attend the conference, sent us many of these ideas. You can e-mail Marva through GMALA, the Global Maternity Leadership Academy, at [email protected].

  • Take free classes from the USAID global health E-learning center, especially the units about maternal and infant health, malaria and pregnancy. (
  • Read Half The Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.
  • Check out The London School of Epidemiology and Global Health, which offers short programs and distant learning programs on global maternal health.
  • Create a global woman’s health corner in your office, clinic or home. Include images, books and facts. Set up a donation box for money and medical supplies.
  • Add a unit about global maternal health to your curriculum, childbirth education class, midwifery or doula training program.
  • Facilitate a workshop about midwifery volunteerism in your area. Mercy In Action is a nonprofit which will travel to your area to hold a two-day workshop entitled “Midwifery Volunteerism in Developing Nations.” It is designed to bridge North American midwifery skills with what is needed to save lives in developing nations. (
  • Ask your clients to donate to an organization that helps midwives abroad. Add an informational handout about the organization to the stack of papers you give out to your clients.
  • Commit to hold one fundraiser a year for your adopted NGO. Start small— have people over for tea, share what you know and pass around an envelope for donations. Or get creative with live and silent auctions, bake sales, car washes, or a lottery where women can win a free childbirth class or free birth.
  • Knit a blanket for the Adis Ababa Fistula hospital. Knit between contractions; your clients will ask: “Who is that blanket for?” (
  • Sell crafts created by women to support women. The NGO Earth Birth, for example, helps women who were forced to work as sex slaves during the civil war in northern Uganda create eco-friendly, reusable menstruation pads.
  • Start your own income generating project. The startup cost for an income generating project is amazingly low. Baby slings, diapers bags and cloth diapers are all items you can easily sell through your practice.
  • Send supplies: Gather supplies from hospitals and clinics in your area, send them over by mail or with volunteers going over.
  • Volunteer at home or go abroad. Doulas, midwives, childbirth educators, and lactation consultants are desperately needed all over the globe. Here is a great organization looking for volunteers:,
  • Adopt a midwife! Invite a student midwife to work with you as an apprentice or to attend your training program. Or sponsor a midwife student to go to school in her own country.
  • Write your politicians and local newspapers to ask what they are doing. This should be front page news. Why isn’t it?

If we—the women who care for women—don’t work toward these goals, who will? If you have more ideas to add to this list, e-mail [email protected]. We can make a much needed book!


About Author: Jan Tritten

Jan Tritten is the founder, editor, and mother of Midwifery Today magazine and conferences. Her love for and study of midwifery sprang from the beautiful homebirth of her second daughter—after a disappointing, medicalized first birth in the hospital. After giving birth at home, she kept studying birth books because, “she thought there was something more here.” She became a homebirth midwife in 1977 and continued helping moms who wanted a better birth experience. Jan started Midwifery Today in 1986 to spread the good word about midwifery care, using her experience to guide editorial and conferences. Her mission is to make loving midwifery care the norm for birthing women and their babies in the United States and around the world. Meet Jan at our conferences around the world!

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