Did you catch this morning’s segment on abuse in the delivery room on CBC Information Radio? In it, a local mom described some really awful treatment she received at a Winnipeg hospital after giving birth. She described how as she was basking in joy with her beautiful new baby, a nurse said “she didn’t want to see me back here in 12 months and lectured me about birth control.” (Sound odd? This mom was First Nations. Not a stretch to think the nurse was probably making discriminatory and racist assumptions). You can read more about these stories here: New mothers upset over treatment in Winnipeg hospitals (CBC Manitoba). Be forewarned: not a pleasant read.
It turns out that CBC National is doing a whole investigation on this matter—see the following articles here (warning, they contain graphic details):
‘A scene from a horror movie’: 9 mothers speak out about alleged mistreatment during childbirth
‘Stop! Stop!’: Canadian women share stories of alleged mistreatment in the delivery room
While it’s always sad and discouraging to hear these stories about mistreatment in maternity care, unfortunately, they are neither new nor rare. I was enraged but not at all surprised by any of the accounts shared in these articles or on the radio. But, I am really pleased to see the mainstream media start to cover what those who are passionate about good maternity care have known all along: women are often treated terribly – even abusively – during their maternity care.
Even comments from “leaders” in the obstetric field show an attitude of disregard and disrespect for women’s well-being. Unbelievably, Jennifer Blake, the CEO of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, says she has never heard any complaints of disrespect or abusive behaviour.
It is true that many women don’t make complaints. Speaking from my own experience and in talking to other moms I know, I suggest there can be many reasons for this:
- she doesn’t want to be seen as a problem patient.
- it takes her a while to process and reflect on the treatment she received, and by the time she realizes that the way she was treated was not okay, it feels too late to report.
- birth and recovery are incredibly intimate, and some of the things she experienced may not be the sort of thing she can be candid about with a stranger.
- she may be carrying (knowingly or unknowingly) shame about the whole experience, and just trying to forget that any of it happened is how she is coping.
(I also relate to a mom in one of the stories, who said that “Being a new mom is very hard, I mean you’re trying to figure out how to live your life and somebody else’s life, so I mean to go forward with a complaint and to add that to your pile of things to do … it’s not really something that a new mom is going to want to do.” ).
I cannot accept that the SOGC has never had any complaints of abuse or disrespect, because it seems to me that at the root of virtually any complaint one could have about maternity care, you’d find a baseline of disrespect or abuse. To make statements like Blake’s, or to say that “systems are rigorous at all levels such that Canadian women listening on CBC can be firmly reassured this is not a concern in Canada” (John Kingdom, chair of the University of Toronto’s department of obstetrics and gynecology) is preposterous.
This “zero complaints” claim also begs the question, according to whom? Does SOGC have a checkbox for disrespect or abuse on their complaint form? I bet every one of the women who made complaints at any level would say that disrespect or abuse were part of the problem. The technical complaint might be something like “being forced to stop pushing because no doctor was available”, but isn’t the underlying cause of that the callous disregard for a woman’s health and well-being during an incredibly intense, vulnerable, and life-altering situation?
I, for one, am tired of the condescending, patronizing of “experts” who wish to assure us that this is not a problem. Often, they’ll talk about the health system now acknowledges that a mom’s birth “experience” and “empowerment” are important too (those words are usually uttered with just a hint of amusement). But you can usually tell they are just trying to humour us, women who are just asking to be treated with human decency and kindness.
No woman wants to put her baby at risk. But no woman should emerge from childbirth needing therapy for PTSD, or feel like she can’t bring another child into the world because of how traumatic the her first birth was. Even a few cruel, dismissive or offhand comments are enough to have a lasting effect on a mother’s mental health and self-perception. Emotional abuse doesn’t leave visible marks but it’s just as harmful as physical abuse.
On the plus side, I was pleased to hear a follow-up on the late afternoon news with a WRHA spokesperson, inviting women to come forward with complaints and concerns at any time, and acknowledging that these things can take time to process and articulate. I may make my complaint yet.
I hope this coverage starts to open a broader conversation about the way women are treated during their maternity care. Obstetric violence is real, it is pervasive, and it cannot be ignored.