The Legal Obstacles a Woman Faces in Choosing Her Birth Experience

The labor and delivery process has evolved immensely over the years in the types of procedures and use of medication. More patient focused than ever, the trends towards natural water births, pre-planned C-sections, and hiring doulas are likely to continue. However, while the physical toll a woman experiences in giving birth is obvious, the emotional and psychological burden is often carried alone and in secret. Women are talking about their struggles with postpartum depression and the traumas associated with giving birth. In lawsuits, women’s claims include being forced to undergo painful invasive vaginal procedures against their consent, feeling imprisoned to a bed for hours at a time, and even having their birthing plan completely ignored by staff. All of these indicate abuse at the hands of doctors and nurses whose primary focus is the birth of a child and not the woman in labor. Women should have the right to make choices about their bodies. This type of “obstetric violence” has led to an uptick in diagnoses of postpartum PTSD, which is often misdiagnosed as postpartum depression. 

This trauma has led a growing number of women to turn to alternative birth plans that avoid hospitals and put the mother in control of her birthing process. Many of these birthing plans occur in a tub or pool, filled with warm water, and incorporate types hypnotherapy and calming techniques to ensure a smooth and serene process. Proponents of this movement include midwives, who are trained in child birthing, and doulas, who assist and advocate for birthing women during the process, who emphasize that healthy women with uncomplicated pregnancies are usually more satisfied with the process than their previous births in hospitals. Natural water birth is praised for having lower cost, more freedom to choose medications or methods, less pain/anxiety, a comfortable and peaceful setting, and a personal connection to the process. However, critics argue that for difficult births, women who insist on natural water birth put both themselves and their baby at a higher risk for complications, or even death. If there is distress, bleeding, or other unknown conditions, the ability to get help and necessary care is more difficult and will take longer. In the UK, doctors are discussing a consent requirement for vaginal pirths beacause the risks of vaginal birth are so high and debating whether it should be the default option. Others discourage the notion that “natural birth is fulfilling while unnatural birth is traumatic” because it disenfranchises women who want to make the choice to have a C-section or epidural as part of their labor and delivery process. Regardless, experts agree natural water birth is a safe and successful birthing plan when well planned and executed. 

Unfortunately, across the United States laws are being passed that constrict a pregnant woman’s opportunity to choose a natural birth. Many doctors refuse to indulge in a natural water birth, which forces women to seek out midwives to facilitate their birthing plan. Twenty-three states refuse to license midwives, driving up the cost of natural water birth and making it less safe for those who insist on it. Like abortion, placing obstacles on water births do not stop them from happening. Some states, like Arkansas and Arizona, even require “vaginal assessments” prior to clearing a woman for a water birth, which is comprised of a series of STD testing and invasive vaginal examinations that a woman giving traditional vaginal birth in a hospital does not have to undergo. New York has attempted to reduce the number of water births by minimizing the number of facilities that would be prepared to facilitate them to three, for the entire state’s population. The effect of this is to limit the freedom of a women to control their birthing plans by requiring them to jump through hoops, increase costs, wait on impossibly long wait lists, and in some cases, even jeopardize her own safety just to exert any authority on the extremely painful and intimate process of bringing a child into the world. It is time for state laws to catch up with modern birthing practices and to give women the power to make their own decisions about their bodies as they give birth.