With thanks to Hermine Hayes-Klein, U.S. attorney for her assistance with this article.
On September 20th over 1,000 individuals, health professionals, and birth advocates groups will be screening the one hour campaigning documentary Freedom For Birth: The Mothers’ Revolution in over fifty countries worldwide. This global call-to-action video directed and produced by two British film makers was inspired by and reports on the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights who in December 2010 stated that childbirth is a fundamental human right. Women have the human right to choose how, where, and with whom they want to give birth. The Court held that governments cannot use the force of law to take away their options.
On May 31 and June 1, 2012, over 300 men and women gathered at The Hague University in The Hague, The Netherlands, for a conference on Human Rights in Childbirth to discuss what it means for childbirth to be a human right and what conditions are necessary that can truly give women the right to control their own bodies. The film includes interviews with over forty birth experts from four continents and with civil rights attorneys who spoke about the new context in which the violation of women’s rights in childbirth can now be framed. Human rights are universal rights.
“More than anything, the film seems to be a call to women to stand up for themselves, for their rights around birth. It’s also a call to lawyers, and an offer from the lawyers in the movie, to help and support women in that process. It’s essentially a kind of reframing of the birth-care conversation, isn’t it—it’s no longer just about, ‘please give us evidence-based care, and ‘joint decision-making,’ but, ‘We own these bodies, these are our babies, and the provider role is simply, only, to advise and support us on our terms.”
In Ternovszky v. Hungary, the European Court handed down a judgment in favor of Anna Ternovszky, a Hungarian mother who brought her case to the court. She wanted to give birth at home with her midwife, Dr. Ágnes Geréb, formerly an obstetrician/gynecologist, but could not do so because it was not clear whether home birth was “legal” under Hungarian law, and midwives who agreed to attend a home birth risked being convicted. In fact Dr. Geréb was convicted and initially sentenced to prison and later to house arrest.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled that birthing women have the right to choose the circumstances in which they give birth, including the choice for home birth, and that their government must enable that choice as legitimate. When the state prevents a woman from being free to choose the circumstances of the birth of her children it is violating her right to privacy, her right to autonomy and her right to control her own body.
The European Court’s ruling is binding on all members of the European Union. But is the ruling of the European Court useful for those concerned with women’s birth rights in the United States or indeed other countries?
Humanrightsinchildbirth.com, the website created to facilitate and encourage the much needed revolution for birthing women suggests that the fundamental human right recognized in the Ternovszky case is relevant in any constitutional democracy with a meaningful right to privacy and right to physical autonomy. Anna Ternovszky stood up for her rights, and so those rights were enshrined in law; her example could be followed in other courts around the world.
“As a birthing woman, you have the right to meaningful choice and genuine support for your personal needs around and during childbirth. Nobody can tell you that you “must” do anything. Nobody can “let you” or “not let you” do anything. Nobody can pressure or force you into a cesarean section that you do not believe is in the interest of yourself and your baby. Nobody can cut an episiotomy if you do not consent to one. Nobody can do anything to your body or your baby without discussing it with you first and asking for your consent. You have the right to be the ultimate authority over everything that occurs around your body’s birth of your baby.”
The documentary producers, Toni Harman and Alex Wakeford, parents of a four year-old daughter, organized this event to be the kick-off of what they hope will be a global “Mothers’ Revolution,” because only mothers or expectant mothers can really bring about the change. Following the September 20th Premier Screening, a 20 minute version of the documentary will be available for free download from the Freedom For Birth website. The video is available with sub-titles in 17 languages.
The producers hope to keep the momentum going and ask that those hosting the attending the screenings, please take photos and post them on their Facebook pages and on Twitter to build up a global buzz:
Women and birth advocates interested in finding out more about the Human Rights in Childbirth Conference can view a webinar, visit the conference Facebook page, or may be able to get a copy of the conference proceedings.