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Women Have Right to Complain about Mistreatment During Birth

ICAN has posted a list of things you can do to complain about your mistreatment during a birth. It’s helpful and necessary, but also a little discouraging.  Affecting hospital policy and practice from the outside is still a hard slog, and lawsuits for unnecessary c-section are difficult and expensive to bring. At the moment all we can do is file complaints, educate others, and push for legal reform.

The most effective wedge right now seems to be pushing for wider access to midwifery and/or birth centers, because while you can’t tell doctors or hospitals what to do, you can shake things up by introducing medical practitioners like midwives who challenge them by providing better and more satisfactory care.

On that note, you can contribute to groups like the M.A.M.A. Campaign (full disclosure: I do some volunteer work for them, and ICAN too) and the Big Push for Midwives as another way of fighting back.

But there’s a larger issue in all this for me.  Women are generally taught that no one likes a complainer. Fairytales are full of heroines who take all kinds of crap with a smile and song, waiting for their prince to show up and make it All Better.

It’s hard to imagine a more pernicious lie to tell to anyone.

Here’s the real truth; until women complain, and complain loudly, for a long time, in ways that anger people and make them uncomfortable, nothing ever changes. It took nearly a hundred years (1826 to 1920) for the first public calls for women’s suffrage to become women’s right to vote. In that time, women were mocked, arrested, and shamed for wanting something so simple and basic as the right to vote on their own behalf. Whole books were written, speeches were made, rude songs and poems and cartoons were created, that portrayed women’s desire to have a vote as something unnatural, un-Christian, and destructive to society. But they didn’t give up, and eventually they won.

And nowadays we look back in amazement that anyone ever found women voting controversial.

I don’t think our fight for better treatment of women in birth will take that long; we have better tools (including our votes!) and more resources than any woman did 100 years ago. But we are still very much in the making-speeches, writing-letters, raising-a-stink phase, and we’ve still got a ways to go to secure our rights and change the system.

I’m saying all this to remind you that when your demands for your rights, the rights you know all women deserve, makes others uncomfortable, or makes them try to shame you for wanting “too much” or “in the wrong way” or for being a “complainer” or “shrill”, then they are using very old tactics. Tactics designed to make you go away and give up and leave things the way they are.

“Sit down and shut up, we know what’s best” is not the honest argument of someone who wants to find the truth. But it still gets said to women who are pregnant and in labor, in ways big and small.  And the only way to fight that kind of attitude is to not be afraid to complain, and demand, and make a nuisance of ourselves until change happens. 

I really believe that someday, our daughters or granddaughters will be amazed that any woman was ever arrested for refusing a c/section, or operated on against her will, or prevented from moving or eating or making noise while she labored to birth her baby. They’ll regard much of what is still considered normal today as cruel, and uninformed, and backwards.

And they’ll be right. But only if we keep refusing to be silenced.


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