COLUMN: What is obstetric violence


Gisella Mancera

Gisella Mancera, Columnist

Obstetric violence is a relatively new term used to describe a long-standing problem. First coined by Venezuela in 2007, obstetric violence is psychological or physical abuse, coercion and/or manipulation done to a woman during pregnancy, childbirth, or postpartum.

Obstetric violence became prevalent when the medicalization of birth was popularized in the late 1800s. Pre-medicalization, birth was women-focused and was understood not just as a physical, but a highly emotional process demanding support.

Once birth started becoming a medical process, attitudes about birth shifted.

Birth, in the way it was experienced and described in medical texts, was an affliction that needed to be treated. By framing birth as a medical procedure, it becomes impersonalized and inspires medical intervention even when not necessary.

This is harmful as research has shown that certain interventions increase mortality risk for both the mother and infant when not necessary. Researcher Lauren Jansen, Ph.D., said, “Every intervention presents the possibility of untoward effects and additional risks that engender the need for more interventions with their own inherent risks.”

One of the worst examples of obstetric violence was depicted in the 3-part Brazilian documentary, “The Birth Reborn,” on Netflix. About 10 years ago, Brazil had a cesarean section rate of 55% in public hospitals, while some private hospitals had rates upwards of 80%.

The World Health Organization declares the ideal C-section rate is 10-15%. So why was the C-section rate so high?

In Brazilian hospitals doctors found out they could charge more for C-sections and they could schedule it into their busy schedules rather than attend to a laboring woman for hours.

When interacting with any form of healthcare system, you are engaging in a hierarchy in which the doctor holds medical authority. Coupled with the prevalent system of patriarchy, women lose autonomy in the decisions being made over their bodies.

The doctor is the one with the power: they can withhold or grant procedures or medications, and are seen as having authority in knowledge, which can influence decision making.

Many women who wanted to birth naturally were coerced and lied to by doctors to manipulate the patient into getting a C-section. At its worst, doctors would assure their patient that natural birth would be possible, only to show them a fake ultrasound, making claims that the umbilical cord was wrapped around the neck, and they needed to operate immediately.

When women do labor, there is video evidence of verbal abuse, as doctors have become impatient and unfamiliar with the natural process of birth.

Thankfully Brazil has made some changes, although it is still an issue.

The U.S. has a C-section rate 31.8% as of 2020, which isn’t horrible, but there’s room for improvement as women still face maltreatment by doctors, especially black women who experience a higher maternal mortality rate.

I think obstetric violence is an interesting topic that highlights the need for phenomenology in research. Phenomenology focuses on how we experience and feel about a phenomenon. We can’t be fooled by numbers, even while it is great that babies are being born healthy, we cannot systematically traumatize women in the process.

Healthy babies cannot be the only standard by which we asses a successful birth. Consideration needs to be given to how women experience birth emotionally and reclaiming autonomy in birth decisions.

Gisella Mancera is a senior sociology major. She can be reached at 581-2812 or at [email protected].