What Is "Birth Rape"?

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If debates about childbirth weren't already incendiary enough, here's a phrase that's being debated online lately: "birth rape." It refers not to forced sexual contact, but to violations experienced during childbearing.


The phrase has been circulating on midwife and childbirth blogs for several years, but is starting to gain force. Here's how a blog devoted to the topic, Birth Trauma Truths, describes it:

A vulnerable woman, who is powerless to leave the situation, is at times held down against her will, has strangers looking & touching at private parts of her body, perhaps without appropriate measures being taken to acknowledge her ownership of her body or to preserve her comfort levels. Perhaps she has fingers or instruments inserted without her consent, and sometimes against her consent, invading and crossing decent boundaries. She is fearful of what is happening to her and perhaps for the wellbeing of her baby, and receives no reassurance that either she or her child are ok. That is a violation, no matter how you look at it. Even IF this treatment is given with no malice and the intent of attempting to assist her with birthing her child, there is NEVER a reason to forgo common decencies that will enable her to maintain a role in the birth, some autonomy over her body, to be involved in the decision-making, to be informed about what they want to do BEFORE they do it.

People who use the phrase are aware that the use of the word "rape" in this instance is controversial. The blog Navel-Gazing Midwife argues that it applies:

I know that the majority of people reading the definition of rape and attempting to apply it to birth trauma will feel it is a stretch to do so. It took decades to believe that rape occurred in marriage or that women could be rapists, too, so expanding the definition to include birth might take a very long time and, I am sure, many, many years and a slew of failed lawsuits before anyone in the legal system recognizes birth traumas/abuses, much less birthrape.

It also angers those who don't want to see rape associated with a natural and profound experience like giving birth to a baby. One blog cites a commenter who had a visceral response to a comparison of "as long as you and the baby are healthy" to "at least he didn't kill you":

It is NOTHING like a rape victim being told they are lucky to be alive! Your baby did nothing wrong.. when someone is raped it is a crime, it involves malice and perverted behaviour. Your baby needed to get out, and you needed it out. That doesn't even compare!! I am saddened by the fact that some women actually feel this way. As i have never, and never will. i DIDNT put my hand up for a cesarean, but it definitely isn't the worst thing that could of happened to me or baby.


A case that's been frequently cited as a public example of this upsetting phenomenon is that of Catherine Skol, whose regular obstetrician was on vacation when she went into labor. The doctor who attended her birth performed a rough vaginal exam, refused her an epidural, told her she and her baby were both at risk of dying, and had a loud phone conversation in the room about abortion, according to her complaint. He said on the phone about another patient, "That stupid woman, she has no business being pregnant," and told Skol when she complained that "pain is the best teacher." (He was eventually fined $500 and given a year's probation.)

Whether or not you find it appropriate, the insistence on the use of the word "rape" — and not simply "birth trauma" — is interesting because both childbearing and sexual assault are points in which, despite all modern progress, women's bodily functions and reproductive organs could seem to define them or take them back to a primal vulnerability. Women traumatized by their birth seem eager in part to use the phrase because they identify with the language of enthusiastic consent that anti-sexual assault activists have codified. More generally, it points to how broadly disempowered so many women feel within the medical system.


Birth Rights [The Age]
Related: More Than Just Rude Behavior: The Rest Of Catherine Skol's Allegations [The Unnecesarean]
Doctor Disciplined In Woman's Labor Treatment [Chicago Breaking News]
Thoughts On Birth Rape [Birth: A Miracle]
When Birth Becomes A Violation [Birth Trauma Truths]
What Doesn't Feel Right, Isn't [Navelgazing Midwife]



Please, let's not call this "rape." I'm sure that birth can sometimes be traumatic, but calling it "rape" does a real disservice to survivors.

When you *consent* to have a hospital birth, it's expected that "strangers" will look and touch (I'm assuming we mean nurses, right?) and that things may be inserted in trying to dilate/get the baby out. If you're thrashing around in pain, yes, you might be held down so as not to hurt yourself or your baby. And, as in any surgery/procedure, if there's an immediate emergency, it'll up to the doctor to exercise his best judgment in the moment - to see that you LIVE - and he may not necessarily being able to consult you.

Don't get me wrong. Doctors like Skol's should absolutely be subject to proper disciplinary action for his insensitivity. If there's a chance to consult the patient about an emergency, doctors should.

And I have sympathy for women who feel they've lost autonomy over their body during a birth. I do. I think it's up to the doctor's bedside manner to help alleviate that feeling and I hope everyone has a doctor who is communicative about what exactly is being done, step by step. But to call something short of that assault or rape?! No. Medical procedures often feel cold or impersonal, but there IS consent.