I recently came across the term “birth rape” and I haven’t stopped debating it in my head since, so I thought I would share my thoughts about it here and see what other people think.
I’m not entirely sure whether or not this post should come with some sort of trigger warning – I will be discussing some sensitive issues, but hopefully not in a way that would distress anyone.
What is Birth Rape?
While there doesn’t seem to be one clear definition for the term, the general consensus is that birth rape is when a woman giving birth has something inserted into her without her consent.
Is Birth Rape A Thing?
I’m all for bodily autonomy. I firmly believe that regardless of sex or gender (or anything else), you should have the right to decide what does or doesn’t happen to your own body. When considering birth rape at it’s most basic definition – insertion without consent – it does match the definition of rape.
However, I must say I find this rather far-fetched. Surely by having a hospital birth (or a home birth with medical intervention) you have consented to certain procedures such as internal examinations*. Unless your doctor happens to be the one in a million abusive one, I find it unlikely he will ram his hand in there unannounced. When he explains what will happen, if a woman refuses the procedure, then I find it unlikely he will “hold her down and do it anyway” which is another phrase I have seen associated with this term.
I do think it’s possible that in an emergency situation where there is a chance of loss of life to either the mother or baby, that a doctor might act without having time to ensure the woman understands the full procedure. I’m not saying this is right, but I’m certainly not saying its rape. What I am saying is that a medical professional has made a life saving decision in the moment. If you are rushed to hospital having been in a car accident for example, the doctor will make medical decisions to save your life. If you are unconscious, or it’s an extreme emergency, this may be done without your consent. No one would dream of using the word rape to describe this.
Why I Think “Birth Rape” is an Appalling Term
Firstly, if anyone reading this had a traumatic birth, I apologise if you feel I am diluting your experience. That is not my intention. I do feel for you, and I can imagine that in the aftermath when you are sore and stressed out, that you could indeed feel violated.
However, my objection with the term still stands. I believe that by using this term, we are dismissing actual rape survivors. As traumatic as a birth emergency can be, especially if you weren’t totally sure what was happening or why, I still, in my mind, can’t equate that with the experience of a rape survivor.
Imagine for a moment that you are powerless to stop something happening. You feel scared, trapped and could be in a fair amount of pain. You are vulnerable, terrified and are imagining the worst. In theory, that could describe child birth for some people and it could also describe rape.
Now lets consider the differences. In scenario one, the person you are vilifying is actually helping you, even if at the time, it doesn’t feel that way. Your body is giving birth, and with or without medical intervention, that’s not going to stop. In scenario two, the person is responsible for those feelings and there is no reason for the experience to happen at all. If he or she stopped their actions, those feelings wouldn’t be there.
I am sure there are women out there who genuinely were violated by the medical professional they trusted to help them with their birth. My heart goes out to those women. To be abused at a time when you are already so vulnerable is beyond comprehension.
But I still think there is a huge difference between a traumatic birth which may lead to you feeling as though you weren’t fully consulted on the procedure to being raped.
I think the term birth rape is an insult to rape survivors. To compare the experience of being violated in one of the worst ways imaginable, to feel powerless and to be used in this way to an uncomfortable birth is like comparing the time your manicurist cut your nails too short to someone who has lost an arm.
As I said earlier I do feel for women who have traumatic births and as a result feel violated. But in my mind, when you choose a hospital birth, you are consenting to the medical staff intervening where necessary.
Take A Moment To Consider The Doctor
Imagine you’re a doctor, nurse or midwife. Your job is to help people. In this case, your job is to help people have babies and have both mother and child survive the procedure.
Now imagine you have a woman mid-birth. She’s in pain and may have taken medication. You are aware she is in a vulnerable position. Now something happens which affects the process in a bad way. You have a choice here. You can do an internal examination and find out what’s happening, or you can let nature take its course and hope for the best.
You know that internal examination can be the difference between saving the baby or not, but the woman isn’t in a state to give consent. The pain, fear and drugs all combine to leave her confused and she isn’t mentally fit to give active consent in that moment. What do you do? Would the fear of being labelled a rapist after the birth affect that decision?
I’m not suggesting for a second that the doctor’s feelings should be placed above the patient’s feelings. What worries me here is if a doctor is accused of this, and the word rape is thrown around, will it make him hesitate the next time he’s in a similar situation? How would you feel if it was your baby’s life that was placed in danger because the doctor is scared of being labelled a rapist if he acts?
Birth Rape: My Final Thoughts
I can see there might be situations where a woman feels that a procedure was unnecessary and invasive. She has a right to be heard. Her body, her choice. For me, the issue with this comes from the use of the word rape. If it was described more accurately as medical negligence, or gross misconduct, it would be more appropriate.
I believe using the word rape in this context is offensive to rape survivors as I’ve mentioned. I believe it trivialises their experiences, and with society already so quick to condemn people who have been raped, do we really need to make it harder for them?
As someone who hasn’t given birth, or been raped, these are just my thoughts on the actual term and definition. Perhaps if I had given birth, I would feel differently. Perhaps if I knew someone who felt anything but grateful to their doctors for saving their baby after a traumatic birth, I would feel differently.
I do identify as a feminist. I believe that everyone has a right to say what happens to their bodies, but I also think there’s a line. I think we can reach the point where we are protesting for the sake of protesting. To fully understand this issue, I think we need to forget for a moment that the procedure revolves around such an intimate part of the body. I think we need to think about the same situation – a doctor acts in the moment based on the chances of survival with and without a procedure and acts upon it – on a different body part. Would anyone feel violated that way? Would you describe it as rape?
This post might sound rather anti-feminist. That’s not my intention. I believe this term was devised for shock value rather than accuracy. And further to that, I believe women who have suffered traumatic births and experienced these situations are being used to make a point. To me, that’s not what feminism is about. It’s about equality and giving women a voice, not using their genuine concerns and fears to make a point.
I would love to hear other people’s opinions on this. Let me know in the comments what you think. Please feel free to disagree. I am not going to judge anyone or belittle your experiences. If you have had a traumatic birth experience and felt afterwards that the term rape described what had happened to you, please feel free to share your experiences without fear of a lecture or being dismissed. I am genuinely interested in hearing other people’s thoughts on this.
This is a sensitive topic – if someone in the comments has a different opinion to you, please don’t attack them. Let’s all share our thoughts in a civil manner.
*Since posting this, I have been informed that you don’t actually sign a consent form on admission which I believed was the case – I don’t believe that you give consent just by being there!