Well Being

The Term ‘Birth Rape’ Hurts Both Moms And Sexual Assault Survivors

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birth rapeBirth rape. It's the relatively new term used by some to describe awful labor and delivery care where a woman's personal choices are disregarded. It often involves doctors or midwives shoving fingers or other medical instruments into a woman's vagina during childbirth without any warning, and sometimes even continuing after the woman screams out in pain or loudly objects. The term has continued to morph and has lately been used to describe cases like Lisa Epsteen's, whose doctor threatened to call the police and force her to have an emergency c-section because he was worried about the health of her child.  The problem is that this new bit of progressive vocabulary hurts both birthing rights activists and sexual assault survivors.

I am a rape survivor. As in, I was drugged by a female acquaintance and her boyfriend over dinner and woke up naked in their shower the next morning with only vague and horrifying flashbacks of what happened in the intervening 12 hours. For quite a while, even my sexual assault wouldn't have been classified as “rape” because it wasn't violently forced upon me. My consent to sex was taken while I was unconscious.

I also happen to have had horrible prenatal treatment from emergency room personnel at my local hospital while being treated for an ectopic pregnancy. I didn't have random objects shoved into my uterus without warning or consent. In my case, I was mostly ignored and left without information while in extreme pain. I am not equating my story with some of the awful experiences of women who experience birth trauma, but I do think that it's important to note that I have a healthy skepticism of the omnipotence of doctors working in obstetrics.

Let me just say that in my personal experience, the two situations were in no way equivalent. For me, there is no universe in which awful medical care should be equated with sexual assault. The two are so different in a million important ways that I honestly cannot understand how people feel comfortable comparing the two.

Both situations involve levels of consent and communication. Both involve reproductive organs. Honestly, this is where I believe the two issues separate.

I am not trying to insult or marginalize the suffering of women who suffer awful childbirth care. I do not think it is too much to ask that doctors and nurses speak with their patients about what's happening and listen to their concerns. If a doctor says they're going to check your cervix and you say no, for any reason, they should stop and discuss the issue further with you. They should ask why you object and do what they can to work with you. And when this doesn't happen, I think women should be vocal in speaking with hospital or healthcare administrators. They should file complaints and share their grievances.

The rights of pregnant women are important. Lisa Epsteen should not have been threatened with police force to make her have a c-section. (At the same time, her decision to ignore the doctor's insistence on an emergency Cesarean sounds reckless and dangerous for the life of her child.) I think that most mothers would agree that we should be supportive of one another's rights and ability to, within reason, have the birthing experience that they choose. Most importantly, we should be focused on making childbirth healthier for everyone involved.

But to co-opt the word rape will not reach that goal. As a term, the definition of rape has been seen as debatable since it was first conceived. There are still people who believe that my rape wasn't real rape. It's date rape. We still have politicians talking about ‘legitimate rape.' We still have legislative arguments over spousal rape. The world of sexual assault is filled with syntactical debates. There is no need to muddy those waters further.

I realize that the term “birth rape” brings attention. I think that's why it was first used, because it was inflammatory enough to get people to look into the matter. I suppose in that end, it achieved the goal of birthing activists. But that doesn't make it correct. It doesn't make it appropriate. And the continued use of it draws away from the serious matters being discussed, because it puts the debate on the vocabulary instead of the real issue.

Birthing trauma is real and the women who experience it deserve our support. But rape victims have fought to get their assaults taken seriously. Throwing around that often  misunderstood and controversial word just to get attention doesn't help women, no matter where they stand on these issues. It makes it more difficult for all of us to be taken seriously.

(Photo: Mirko Tabasevic/Shutterstock)