The Blog

Human Rights Day 2015 - Human Rights in Childbirth as a Global Movement

With so much happening around the world, it truly feels there's now a global movement to support women's rights in childbirth, and that movement is fast gathering momentum. Change is happening. More people are being brought into the conversation. More people are now more aware of human rights in childbirth.

In May 2012, the first ever Human Rights in Childbirth Conference took place at The Hague. The conference brought together lawyers, doctors, midwives, anthropologists and parents to explore the emerging topic of women's rights in childbirth.

I was there filming for our documentary FREEDOM FOR BIRTH, which articulated the issue by telling the story of Agnes Gereb, a Hungarian midwife who was then and is still now, facing criminal charges for supporting women who gave birth at home. One Hungarian mother, Anna Ternovszky, who had previously been supported in her home birth by Agnes Gereb, decided to fight for the legal right to choose how and where a mother gives birth. Ms Ternovszky took her country to the European Court of Human Rights in 2010 and won a landmark case that now gives every mother in Europe the right to choose the circumstances of her birth.

(To rent or buy FREEDOM FOR BIRTH - please go to

But what has happened since? Are women's rights in childbirth still being violated? To mark Human Rights Day 2015, I thought I would give a "progress report" describing what's happened since that first Hague conference.

In the past three years, various non-profit organisations have formed to help protect women's rights in childbirth. Human Rights in Childbirth is one such organisation with global reach, led by the US lawyer Hermine Hayes-Klein (one of the lawyers featured in FREEDOM FOR BIRTH), "All over the world, women are increasingly standing up for their right to access respectful, non-violent care in pregnancy and childbirth, and lawyers are coming forward to help them advocate for those rights. The last two years have seen unprecedented recognition from WHO, FIGO/ICM, CEDAW, and other global maternity care stakeholders that disrespect and abuse is happening in maternity care and that it needs to stop."

Ms Hayes- Klein continues, "Human rights aren't meaningful unless they are protected legal rights. Women all over the world are bringing legal actions to ask their nation to protect and enforce their legal right to informed consent and refusal-- which is their human right to autonomy and dignity-- in childbirth. With c-section rates passing 20%, 30%, 50%, and 80% in many healthcare systems, every pregnant person needs to know that they have the right to decline surgery and to be supported on their terms."

In the US, organisations like Improving Birth are working hard to raise awareness of human rights and obstetric violence. According to Improving Birth's, Cristen Pascucci, "The past 12 to 18 months here have been incredible. Several women made national headlines with their ground-breaking lawsuits related to consent/force/coercion, starting with Kimberly Turbin's case against Dr. Alex Abassi for assault and battery after he gave her an episiotomy she had refused. Improving Birth joined Human Rights in Childbirth, National Advocates for Pregnant Women, and the Birth Rights Bar Association to file a legal brief on behalf of consumers in the case of Rinat Dray (the NY woman given a forced Cesarean), part of which states: "Consumer advocacy organizations, like the Amici represented here, have emerged in response to widespread reports of disrespect and abuse in maternity care, including violations of informed consent."

Together with photographer Lindsay Askins, Ms Pascucci's photo Exposing The Silence project brought global attention to the trauma and violence suffered routinely by women in childbirth - thrusting the issue into the mainstream media (it was even covered by the Daily Mail).

In South Africa, a Human Rights in Childbirth summit convened earlier this year to bring together human rights lawyers with leaders in midwifery and medicine, community health, and grassroots activism to collectively envision what maternity care will look like when it serves African women, families, and communities on their terms. In September, advocacy by Evelyne Opondo from the Center for Reproductive Rights led the Kenya High Court to recognize that the detention of postpartum women because they cannot pay their childbirth hospital bill is a human rights violation.

In India, the Human Rights Law Network filed 150 lawsuits in 14 Indian states for reproductive rights violations. According to midwife Lina Duncan, "Journalists are bringing to the light some of the horrific abuses and disrespect that happens in public hospitals, even using the words 'obstetric violence' which is a new concept to be addressed in India. The issues are urgent, concerning on all levels, with cultural myths and traditions entwined with medical practices. The rare few that have the option of choosing gentle birth options are a small and growing army of birthkeepers that are creating a space for MotherBaby. There is hope and there are networks springing up. Human Rights in Childbirth will hold their conference in January 2017 in India and we hope many will join hands to improve birth worldwide for MotherBaby."

In Italy, Alessandra Battisti and Elena Skoko, (who met at one of the thousand global premieres of FREEDOM FOR BIRTH), have established a Human Rights in Childbirth in Italy pressure group. According to Ms Skoko, "they have entered into relation with national governmental institutions (Ministry of Health, Istituto Superiore di Sanità), and brought the issue of human rights in childbirth on the discussion tables on maternal healthcare policies. We are working in tight contact with mothers' and midwives' associations. We have recently formed a Research Unit on "Human Rights in Maternity and Childbirth" at the University Roma Tre that is aiming to address the issue from a multidisciplinary perspective."

Elsewhere in Europe, two mothers from the Czech Republic have taken their case to the European Court of Human Rights regarding support for home births. A Grand Chamber appeal hearing decision is expected soon. Dubská and Krejzová v. the Czech Republic (application nos. 28859/11 and 28473/12)

In the UK, a new organisations called Birthrights has formed run by barrister Elizabeth Prochaska (who was also in FREEDOM FOR BIRTH). According to their website, Birthrights is "dedicated to improving women's experience of pregnancy and childbirth by promoting respect for human rights. We believe that all women are entitled to respectful maternity care that protects their fundamental rights to dignity, autonomy, privacy and equality. " Birthrights not only provide free resources for expectant women, but they run events and campaigns to advocate for women's rights in childbirth.

With so much happening around the world, it truly feels there's now a global movement to support women's rights in childbirth, and that movement is fast gathering momentum. Change is happening. More people are being brought into the conversation. More people are now more aware of human rights in childbirth. But much more work needs to be done so ensure every woman in every country is not just aware of her rights in childbirth, but is given full informed choice, and crucially, for her choices to be fully respected by every healthcare provider.

Human Rights Day 2015 is on Thursday 10th December 2015.

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