The Shaming Has to Stop

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Get ready for a major soapbox post.

I get it. Those of us who choose to birth outside the box are different. We make choices that don’t necessarily follow mainstream society norms. Our choices may not be in alignment with what is embraced by the obstetrical model of care. Our choices may make medical professionals feel uncomfortable, challenged, exposed. I get it, really I do.

But…

That doesn’t give a healthcare professional the right to deny care in order to shame women and midwives, to bully us, or to punish us into submission because a laboring woman didn’t choose what the medical professional thinks we should do for ourselves, for our children, or for our clients.

Yes, this really happens. All. The. Time.

And, it never should. Ever.

For the most part, people who choose to give birth outside of the hospital feel that giving birth in a hospital is like using a sledgehammer push a thumbtack into a cork board—way too much fuss for something that most people can do on their own—and that a healthy woman having a normal birth in a hospital is asking for trouble. It isn’t that doctors have bad intentions. Most of the time, doctors and nurses have the very best of intentions. But, once a woman walks into a hospital, she will need to be “treated.” And, once a normal labor is “treated” (read, “interfere with”), risk is introduced.

People who choose to give birth outside of the hospital view the medical community as a necessary resource if the normal process doesn’t go normally. Most of us don’t hesitate to seek medical care if there is a need. Yet, why would a woman hesitate? Why do so many of home birthers/birth center birthers distrust the medical community? The lack of trust in the medical community exists because women have been burned many times, and women share their stories with each other.

As a midwife, I’ve personally seen patients yelled at, forced to have vaginal exams despite an explicit refusal, and verbally abused (put down, shamed, coerced, threatened). Doctors have yelled at me, attempted to discredit me in front of my clients, and threatened me with complaints. Why? Is it because something was done wrong? No, quite the contrary. All of these things happened because of a hospital transfer when a mom needed non-emergency help. Yes, these examples occurred during non-emergency transfer situations.

You might think, “Well, during a birth, the hospital staff acts this way because they worry about liability.” OK, let’s assume a medical professional was upset about that. Does that warrant abusive treatment of women and midwives? Quite honestly, does their bias or fear of liability even matter? Their job is to treat whoever comes through the doors of the hospital. Federal EMTALA laws protect a woman’s right to be treated in labor. ACOG supports patient autonomy even if the provider feels the woman’s choices are in conflict with the provider’s belief that her choices are unwise. A practitioner’s unprofessional behavior actually increases the provider’s liability by failing to respect patient autonomy and by refusing to provide the same level of care they would give to any other patient they serve.

This lack of professionalism experienced in the hospital sometimes extends beyond the birth. This is where I feel like the treatment is almost entirely punitive. While I can understand the frustration and stress of a provider who receives an in-labor hospital transfer, this type of post-birth discrimination seems like coercion and punishment for a family making choices that a provider does not personally support.

After a normal, healthy birth, the midwife’s scope of practice is normal newborn care throughout the first 6 weeks. The midwife conducts all of the usual assessments and then recommends the family see a pediatrician for a normal well baby visit at the end of the six-week period. The family calls to make an appointment.

Hold the phone! Wait a second, they won’t see the baby? Why not? Some practices won’t see the baby because the baby was born at home. Say what? They won’t see the baby for 6 months because they didn’t get the vitamin K shot? You’ve got to be kidding me!

Do physicians have the right to deny those people care because they disagree with their choices? For instance, is it OK for a pediatrician to refuse to accept a patient into care because the mother doesn’t breastfeed her baby? Would it be OK if a pediatrician refused care for families who homeschool? No, of course not. Yet, in many cases, with the population of families we serve, if a family has refused for their newborn anything from the mainstream model (such as a Vitamin K shot or erythromycin eye ointment or hepatitis B vaccine), they encounter judgment, fear, or a refusal of service.

It is unethical to refuse care in an attempt to coerce or bully a patient into consenting to care they have refused. It is unethical to refuse care as a way to punish families for their choice to give birth in a way that you do not agree with. It’s morally wrong.

The shame that is heaped on families who’ve chosen a path outside of the mainstream standards has created a culture of resistance and distrust, and that’s not good for anyone. Women and their families should be able to count on a multi-tiered model of care. If a woman plans to give birth at home and the labor takes a turn, she should be given a high quality of care during her transfer, and when she becomes a patient at a hospital. What if instead of shaming, a medical professional chose compassion? Understanding? And what if the medical professional were trained to see themselves as an important part of the picture for women who choose to birth at a birth center or at home?

The shaming has to stop. The punishment has to stop. Is it any wonder we don’t trust you? The distrust has been built on years of mistreatment. It rests on the shoulders of those in the medical community who lack professionalism, who don’t separate their own personal choices and/or training from the choices of the women and midwives who come to them in good faith and in order to see a labor to a successful and safe conclusion.

This dynamic needs to change. Show women that you can treat them with the same respect their midwives show them. Help women to make informed choices, and then respect their right to informed refusal (without trying to make them feel bad about the final decisions). Welcome us—the birth team and the laboring women—so we feel we can come to you for help when it’s needed. Welcome us, so we don’t feel like we want to wait a little longer to see if things get better because we’re scared of how we’ll be received when we arrive at the hospital. Welcome us, so we know we can share our stories fully and honestly with you, without fear of mocking or teasing—or retaliation against our clients.

If the goal is truly to provide good care and not to punish people whose views differ from your own, it’s time to do something to make a change for the good. Every time we interact with you, you have a golden opportunity to let the medical profession shine. Don’t blow it. Help us walk towards you instead of away from you.

If you’re a doctor or a nurse and you support families who make choices that aren’t in alignment with your protocols, this post is not about you. Or, maybe it is. Maybe this is a love story about you. You are the people who give me that glimmer of hope that change is possible and that midwives, consumers, and the medical community can work together to make outcomes better for mothers and babies, and make the experience better for all of us.

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