Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Witch? Still Casting Women as Villains in 2014.

WitchI sat down to write a piece on the glaring disparity between the way that we sanction and discipline physicians vs. the way we discipline midwives – the clearly defined enemy border, the edges of which have been charred in a centuries-long professional gendercide. While physicians are civilly sued and professionally sanctioned, midwives remain tied to the stake, prosecuted under criminal law for things like practicing medicine without a license all the way up to charges of homicide and manslaughter for maternal and fetal demise.

I’m trying to keep my narrative focused, but I’m having trouble. Because in the course of stating facts and laying out statistics, I keep running into the obvious undercurrent …. that within the maternity care system, physicians are protected from their socially accepted violence against women, and not just in cases of demise, but in the ways in which they are allowed to overpower women, penetrate them against their will, hold them down, chastise them, threaten them, and coerce them into whatever procedure or intervention they deem fit. Their acts so disturbingly resemble childhood molestation in the ways that a woman is treated as infantile, how she is cooed at in order to keep her calm and quiet so he can just “do his job,” how she’s splayed open on the slab, her humanity erased with a polka dotted robe and a sideways glance.

There is an unspoken belief that a woman’s body is her OB’s canvas, a swath of fabric to drape and position and slice however he deems fit. Her job isn’t to participate; it is to lie, unmoving, unfeeling; flattened to the to the bolt in pressed submission.

Gross Violations, and the Everyday

There’s this true story about a doctor who thought it would be amusing to slice his initials into a woman’s abdomen while he sewed her up following her cesarean. A signature of sorts along the bottom of his work. And another, more recent story about a physician who secretly videotaped pelvic exams with a hidden camera around his neck. It went on for about eight or nine years before he was caught.

The gruesome and nefarious nature of these cases made them both universally recognized oversteps. Both ended with large, civil settlements, and the graffiti artist was charged with assault, sentenced to probation, and prohibited from applying for a medical license for 5 years; the voyeur committed suicide before a determination about criminal charges was ever made.

Informed Consent Chalk Art

Thanks to BA reader, Vettey, for sharing her chalk art photo.

It made me think about how ironic it is. How routinely violating women in labor through various means is not punishable as a criminal offense. How disfiguring a woman’s vagina without consent is a perfectly acceptable and understandable “standard of care.” The way that snipping straight and crooked lines within the normally covered orifices of a woman’s panty line is an unnamable, untouchable offense. Surely, her tender skin, already stretched to capacity, burning with illogical elasticity couldn’t be expected to spring back to normal again, anyway. So long as the work isn’t labeled with signed graffiti, the scar tissue that remains is the honorable remnant of a sort of pinning ceremony. It will be a painfully tight, visible reminder of his capped head between her thighs; of the way her first steps nearly brought her to her knees and she’d swear railroad tracks had been built in her crotch.

So, while we debate and speculate and hyper-focus over the most alarming and disturbing cases of physician assault, we miss the every day violations of digital rape, vaginal mutilation, and forced and coerced compliance. These are equally egregious, and not a single provider is held accountable for these violations. Not civilly or criminally. It is considered socially acceptable to ravage a woman under bright lights and sterile gowns. Tweet: It is considered socially acceptable to ravage a woman under bright lights and sterile gowns. http://ctt.ec/bbkGw+ There is no retribution for women who are routinely held down, spread open and told to behave.

Dying to Keep Us Safe

We accept these bad behaviors under the pretense that it’s all “for the good of the baby.” Doctors and entire hospital systems deny women the rightful use of their own bodies. They back women into corners, force them into surgery, and bully them with forceful hands and verbal abuse all in the name of “safety.”

Maternal mortalityWhich is interesting, because the U.S. – a country that boasts the most money spent on maternity care in the world, with some of the highest intervention rates and lowest homebirth rates – has some of the poorest health outcomes when compared against other developed countries. The U.S ranks sixtieth in maternal mortality (only one of eight countries with an increasing mortality rate, and the only developed country, at that). FIFTY NINE other countries do better at keeping pregnant women alive than we do. We fail at infant outcomes, as well. The U.S. finds itself lagging behind 68 other countries including Egypt, Turkey, and Peru with more first-day deaths than any other developed country. More than 11,000 newborns die on their first day in the U.S. every year. That’s 50% more than all other industrialized countries, combined.

So lest we think that it’s extremely rare for women and babies to die, or lest we think that maybe they die, but they don’t die in the hospital, we need to face some sobering realities. Deaths at birth occur both in and out of the hospital. But, considering that a minuscule percentage (less than 2%) of women birth at home, the disproportionate criminal charges against midwives for deaths is unconscionable.

A Good Birth Outcome isn’t Guaranteed

No matter the location, unforeseen accidents and tragedies happen. Like the baby who gets hung up in her cord or the developmental anomaly no one could prevent or foresee. And sometimes, the fallible humans that attend women make devastating mistakes. Like the physician who used too much force during an instrumental vaginal delivery, or the midwife who attended a complicated breech birth at home. Both ended with a still baby, but only one resulted in manslaughter charges.

While we don’t want to acknowledge that doctors are fallible and can and do make mistakes, we take morbid pleasure in stringing up the midwife to prove her ignorance; illuminate her incompetency; to brandish her a devil.

In fact, we hate the idea of a woman making choices about her own body and her pregnancy so much that we will place anyone upon the flaming stake who chooses to assist her in stepping out of line. What this relays most is not only #howwehatewomen, but how we absolutely loathe those women who have the audacity to make choices about their own bodies and their own pregnancies. The disparity reveals not only a distaste for and a witch hunt of midwives, but for pregnant women, as well.

Brandishing the midwife as a loose-cannon, baby-killing criminal is not only a sinister attempt to bring down an entire profession, it is more aptly a vehicle to terrorize women – to keep them afraid of accessing the few birthing choices that they actually have. Under the guise of “safety,” we increase the likelihood that more women will birth unattended, and that others will succumb to non-evidence based care that places them and their babies at risk.

So, let’s just be honest.

We don’t really care about “protecting” women. Women don’t need protection from only certain care providers, women don’t need protection from ‘insidious’ abortion clinics, and we certainly don’t need protection from ourselves, or from choices we might make about our health or our pregnancies.

Pregnant self-portrait by BA reader, Cherrie Newman, mother and activist

Pregnant self-portrait by BA reader, Cherrie Newman, mother and activist

When are we going to start really protecting women from the daily infringements – from the assaults and overriding of rights? When are we going to stop hyper-focusing on the risks of one kind of care-provider, and simultaneously ignoring the institutional practitioners who place women at daily, hourly, unnecessary risk through outdated standards of care? When are we going to address women’s holistic need to be autonomous decision-makers in their healthcare, both in and out of pregnancy? When will the time come to honor the sacred space of a woman’s transition into motherhood? At what point are we going to stop ushering so many folks there on the tailcoats of trauma, disfiguration, and loss?

Folks, this is not about playing nice and building bridges. None of us should be interested in building bridges with our oppressors.Tweet: None of us should be interested in building bridges with our oppressors. http://ctt.ec/aeus6+ None of us should be invested in mitigating our personhood with those occupied with and operating under a patriarchal agenda.

“Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.” – Audre Lorde

It’s time to maintain our focus on our legitimate and glaring human rights concerns. It’s time to insist with brute-force pressure that those inflicting harm course-correct. No more meekly begging if we may please have our rights. Tweet: No more meekly begging if we may please have our rights. http://ctt.ec/dPqK8+


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  1. says

    As a midwife facing criminal charges right now, I appreciate this article. In my case the police were actually looking for the graves of dead babies in my back yard. It is a witch hunt. In fact, if you study the verbage in these cases against midwives today, it is exactly the same language as found in the Witch Hammer of the 14th century.

  2. says

    I just had to laugh when I saw the witch as a midwife. I have a youtube series called – Material Hospital for a pain free labour, in it the Obstetric Nurse is a witch!
    The puppets are from when my children were small and all home made. I was always rather good at the wiches voice and so she had to be in the show. Normal Midwife was Batman, Epiman was Super Man and Preggy Girl was a Princess. Not sure where Piggy Pete came from, he just snuck in there.
    Brilliant post as always. xx

  3. says

    It’s sad and outrageous to see that the few midwives we can count on could end up been prosecuted as described in the text. I’m a Natural Childbirth Educator and Doula. It’s very hard to educate, in an ecuanime non violent or scary posture to pregnant women, who look to deliver at hospitals, seeking “health”, the concept to be on guard at the multiple possibilities and scenarios where they will be intimidated into making uninformed decisions that will affect their birthing experience, outcome, possibly her health, her baby’s, the beginning of a new family and impact future generations. Sadly, an aggression of some sort it’s not a possibility. It will happen. In the vulnerable process of delivering, women will encounter so many strangers (staff) crusing in and out her delivery space that even with frivolous jokes or minimizing comments she will feel some sort of emotional discomfort. It’s unfair that later on, in the mother’s memory and story telling perpetuation, these environmentally caused discomforts will be attributed to birthing! I feel as an accomplice of taking away from the enchantment of the idea of birthing that women seek by having to touch these subjects in class. Instead it would be great to only deepen into their sublime, innate, beautiful, womanly art and capability of birthing.There’s so many issues to be addressed. While womens’ views of themselves continue evolving for generations to come, we must continue being their allies, empowering and mothering them!

      • says

        Kathi Valeii, thank you for sharing that piece. I had to read it more than once to make sure I was internalizing the message. Identifying with it would make me travel repeatedly to scenes I have lived and continue living. The following part felt intensely familiar.
        “When they turn to me and offer up the same form of indebtedness, I am glued as an accomplice to the perpetrator. My service, though much different from the care provider’s, is now lumped into the same form of “rescue.” My goal of empowered support has been reduced, contorted, muddied.”
        Some of my clients, as doula, right after the process of delivering and having been mistreated by their doctor, have asked me if I liked her doctor. Even proceed to ask me “wasn’t he nice”? I bite my tongue thinking: “I just finished witnessing her doctor to forcefully, with his own hands, switch her body from pushing lying sideways to grab her by her legs and placing her on her back, while she pleaded to continue pushing in the position that was more comfortable for her. Am I supposed to like her choice of birth attendant? That’s what I feel I’d be attacking (her, instead of him) if I answer truthfully, after her ordeal.” So, filled with compassion I make a positive remark of some other sort. Still feeling as an accomplice. Reading the article I notice, once again, how valid are our concerns and feelings for delivering women and their broken process.

  4. Cindy says

    I’m so tired of reading this article. I’ve lost count of how many times, worded how many different ways and it’s always the same, except now it seems worse. I see more and more news stories of women forcibly sectioned, by a freakin Court of Law! Some threatened with losing their children, being accosted after a birth and then having their infants held at ransom! Every time I think there are inroads into positive birthing, there’s another 40 stories or so of something horrendous. Women tell these tales as if having gone through it was worthy of a badge of honor. My then sister-in-law scheduled a section so she wouldn’t “have to go through all that pain”. Later I had an appendectomy at 5 months, and I really knew what she’d gone through, but she had no idea how truly pleasant and positively a gentle birth can affect you. Young women are on board, they want this. i see them and then they come back later with some horror story generally involving being bullied into a section. While loads of the originating tale of the “horrors of childbirth” stem from mediaeval times and the lack of hygiene and poor nutrition, it otherwise was a virtual paradise because no man was trying to tell us what the best method of delivery was much less forcing us into it…

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