Pregnancy or abortion: Either way, women face violence

 

In the United States, violence is often the current reality for women seeking reproductive services. Access to abortion is becoming more difficult, more costly, and almost always associated with numerous procedures or circumstances that shame women. Giving birth is similarly costly and often a place for extraordinary controlling power over the women’s devaluated bodies. When women attempt to make decisions about their own bodies, they are rarely trusted as intelligent human beings, especially when they are women of color or/and of lower income status.

Medical and legal institutions embody the authority of the state. They hold the right and ability to decide for women and to send them to jail for not complying with orders over their own bodies. Lynn Paltrow and Jeanne Flavin recently provided a long list of women, across the country, who experienced violence during pregnancy. Each time, their lives were judged inconsequential compared to the life of the fetus they were carrying. The process is simple: the woman’s body is scrutinized, the doctor or medical personnel denounce the woman to the legal power when she demands other options other than induction or c section, then the judge orders and the fetus existence and rights overweigh the women’s.

Since Paltrow and Flavin published an important study last year revealing the outrageous inhuman treatments of women at the time of reproduction, including incarceration of women, nothing has really changed. Judges still order c-sections on women, and women are forcibly taken to the operation room often handcuffed. The very real feticide laws are the pretext for these decisions as well as a misinterpretation of Roe v Wade, which results in women losing their rights.

The number of forced procedures on pregnant women is astonishing. For example, in Florida, Jennifer Goodall wanted to have a vaginal birth after previous c-sections. Her decision was informed. She received a letter from the chief financial officer of the Hospital that dictated a cesarean surgery to deliver her baby against her informed wish to have a vaginal delivery. Jennifer was forced to the operation room after a judge ordered the c-section.

In New York, Rinat Dray experienced similar violence as she was delivering her baby. As she was laboring, the doctor told her that the delivery was progressing fine, “but he just didn’t have all day.” She did not want the c-section he ordered, she begged for mercy. The doctor responded that he wasn’t bargaining, told Rinat Dray to be silent, and performed the c-section.

In privatized medical care, finance and profit are key. Cesarean procedures are moneymakers. A recent study shows that physician mothers receive fewer c-sections than equally educated women. While the study establishes the relationship between social status, economic status, and treatment, by framing the issue as a simple choice of treatment, it misses the violent control over women that is inscribed in the neoliberal political economy of health care in the United States. Furthermore, deliveries should not be considered treatments, as pregnancy does not require treatment but assistance. Instead, there is a constant fear factor that is played on women. Childbirth has evolved to become a surgical event in the United States as Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English noted years ago. Not to forget the differential of care that is linked to citizenship and insurance membership, undocumented immigrants are simply barred from medical assistance in many states.

Paltrow and Flavin argue that if “we want to end these unjust and inhumane arrests and forced interventions on pregnant women we need to stop focusing only on abortion…. Start working to protect the personhood of pregnant women.” There is no need to oppose abortion to pregnancy, even if many pregnant women in these cases are opposed to abortion. The questions are neither about the technicality of delivery nor about safety as the US has the worst records in infant and maternal mortality and one of the highest rates of forced procedures (32.8% c-section) in the developed world. While the WHO does not provide exact recommendations, it suggests that a caesarean delivery rate of 15% should be taken as a threshold not to be exceeded.

At issue is State legitimized violence against women, with guaranteed immunity to the State and its representatives. It is also about the control of women’s bodies at the time of reduced public services and fewer protections against market hegemony. Women face a medical criminal justice system that is growing, and the tentacles of which reach ever more deeply into every nook and cranny of women’s reproductive bodies.

 

(Photo Credit: Change.org/ImprovingBirth.org)

About Brigitte Marti

Brigitte Marti is an organizer researcher who has worked on reproductive rights and women's health initiatives in France and in the European Union and on women prisoners' issues in the United States. She is a member of Women Included, a new transnational feminist collective, that is part of the Women 7, a coalition that advocates for the inclusion of women's rights in the G7.