An alternative to "birth rape"

A Venezuelan measure uses the term "obstetric violence" instead. We could learn a few things from the law

Published November 11, 2010 2:19AM (EST)

I've argued before against the use of the term "birth rape" to describe some women's experiences of violation, and even violence, during labor. That doesn't answer the question of what we should call these experiences, though. Well, I just discovered, via Babble, that Venezuela has an alternative phrase: "obstetric violence." That's more like it.

An article in the December issue of the International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics reports that the country has introduced the new legal term, which carries with it a fine and the potential for professional disciplinary actions. It is explained like so:

[T]he appropriation of the body and reproductive processes of women by health personnel, which is expressed as dehumanized treatment, an abuse of medication, and to convert the natural processes into pathological ones, bringing with it loss of autonomy and the ability to decide freely about their bodies and sexuality, negatively impacting the quality of life of women.

If we're being honest, my first response to that is to laugh. Why? Because "dehumanized treatment, "abuse of medication" and pathologizing "the natural processes" sounds so much like par for the course, as far as hospitals generally go. Not that it should be that way, but it so often is. But the rule, which is part of the Organic Law on the Right of Women to Be Free from Violence, further details specific violations:

(1) Untimely and ineffective attention of obstetric emergencies; (2) Forcing the woman to give birth in a supine position, with legs raised, when the necessary means to perform a vertical delivery are available; (3) Impeding the early attachment of the child with his/her mother without a medical cause thus preventing the early attachment and blocking the possibility of holding, nursing or breast-feeding immediately after birth; (4) Altering the natural process of low-risk delivery by using acceleration techniques, without obtaining voluntary, expressed and informed consent of the woman; (5) Performing delivery via cesarean section, when natural childbirth is possible, without obtaining voluntary, expressed, and informed consent from the woman.

It seems not all cases of so-called birth rape would be covered by the law, based on the broadness of some activists' definitions. For example, Amity Reed, who doggedly defends the use of the term, characterized "birth rape" as a case where during labor "an instrument or hand is inserted into a woman's vagina without permission, after which the woman feels violated."

We could stand to learn a couple of things from the Venezuelan measure: For starters, using straightforward language like "obstetric violence" might be more effective than relying on a term that employs a loaded word like "rape." Perhaps even more important, though, is that in defining such a term -- regardless of whether we prefer "birth rape" or "obstetric violence" -- we better spell out exactly what it is that we're talking about and leave no room for ambiguity.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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