The Blog

Human Rights in Childbirth - From Niche Cause to a Global Movement

Over the past year, I've become a champion of a niche cause. Few people have heard of it. But it's a cause that directly affects the health and well-being of millions of women around the world. That cause is human rights in childbirth.

Over the past year, I've become a champion of a niche cause. Few people have heard of it. But it's a cause that directly affects the health and well-being of millions of women around the world. That cause is human rights in childbirth.

In Europe, a landmark European Court of Human Rights ruling (Ternovszky vs Hungary 14th Dec 2010) means that every woman now has the human right to choose the circumstances of her birth. It means that all expectant women have autonomy over their own bodies - women can choose how and where they give birth.

Despite this ruling, in many places around Europe, the basic rights of birthing women to make decisions about childbirth are not assumed. In Ireland, earlier this year, a court order was sought to force a woman to have a caesarean. In Italy, a woman recently took her doctors to court to argue they performed an episiotomy despite her forcibly and repeatedly denying consent.

Across Europe, midwives are being criminally prosecuted for supporting women giving birth outside the hospital. In Hungary, the midwife Agnes Gereb has been been criminally prosecuted, imprisoned and for the past two years, held under house arrest. The prosecution recently added another four charges and her trial is anticipated to last throughout 2013. In Lithuania, a midwife called Jurgita Svedienne is also facing criminal charges and has also been the subject of repeated home raids by the police. In Greece, 79 people (health professionals and parents) are currently on trial for choices relating to their home births - they are accused of environmental pollution for burying their placentas. The Greek organization of obstetrician-gynecologists recently published a statement on their website against home birth in which they stated that a birthing woman is "entitled to express her opinion on the method and place of birth." Meanwhile, the caesarean section rate in private hospitals in Greece is over 50%.

In the US, women's rights in childbirth do not seem to be formally recognised. In Florida as in other states, women have had forced caesareans. The legal status of home birth and midwifery is a patchwork across American states, but in no state are they fully secure and legitimate healthcare choices. In the past year, midwives in California, North Carolina, Indiana and in Oregon have all faced criminal prosecution.

Back here in the UK, new research by Dr Angela Davis from the University of Warwick 'Choice, Policy and Practice in Maternity Care since 1948' claims that despite over fifty years of campaigning, women's choices about birth are still being widely ignored by healthcare providers. According to Dr Davis, "Women are primarily critical of a lack of information, lack of choice in their care and dissatisfaction with their caregivers, rather than the procedures themselves." She goes on to say, "While chiefly framed as a debate about reconciling women's choice over how and where to give birth on the one hand, with the fate of their babies on the other, this more often comes down to cost and control. Women's choice is characterised as an expensive, and possibly dangerous, luxury."

But things are changing. Awareness is growing. There is hope.

Last year in May, the first Human Right in Childbirth conference took place at the Hague attended by hundreds of academics, lawyers, midwives, obstetricians, campaigners (and us as filmmakers). Other HRiC conferences modelled on the Hague conference have happened since in the US, Finland, Australia, Ecuador, Israel and Croatia with another HriC conference taking place later this year in Blanckenberge, Belgium.

Inspired by these events, together with my partner Alex Wakeford, we made a documentary film called Freedom For Birth about Human Rights in Childbirth that was seen by over 100,000 people in 1,100 grass-roots screenings in 50 countries in 17 languages - all on one day, 20th September 2012.

Our Freedom For Birth screenings gained worldwide press and media coverage. Hundreds more screenings are planned this September in a simultaneous global screening event designed to propel Human Rights in Childbirth even further into the mainstream.

In the past year, many campaign groups have been taking direct action. Improving Birth organised hundreds of rallies across the US to campaign for evidence based maternity care The Positive Birth Movement was founded linking social media with a network of free Positive Birth groups. The Freedom For Agnes Gereb action group is currently running a #waitingforagnes Twitter and Facebook campaign in support of Agnes Gereb.

A legal advocacy group, Birthrights was launched in January this year offering legal advice and free downloadable materials to inform expectant women about their human rights in birth. Across North America and Europe, legal defence networks have formed to educate the public and collaborate for legislative action. The organisers of the Human Rights in Childbirth Hague conference have moved from a grass-roots network of international volunteers to become a politically active NGO with a foundation in The Hague to advance the rights of birthing women.

So much has happened in the past year but there is so much more still to do. My hope is that by next year, human rights in childbirth isn't a niche cause any more. In fact, my hope is that it is a mainstream legal and political movement. Then the birthing revolution will have well and truly begun.

For more information about our global screening of FREEDOM FOR BIRTH event, please go to: