“Obstetric Violence” and the Ongoing Movement to Redefine Consent


It’s no secret that our current legal definitions and concepts of consent could use some work. We’ve documented countless cases in which current standards of law have failed to offer adequate protection against sexual assault, violence and rape. We’ve also considered the ways in which laws mandating invasive activity based on women’s pregnancy status in particular raise issues about bodily autonomy and the need for new language that offers better protection against assault and violence.

That’s why I’m so excited that “obstetric violence” was recently introduced as a new legal term in Venezuela, as reported by the Unnecessarean.

According to an editorial [link requires subscription] published last month in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics, the law defines obstetric violence as “…the appropriation of the body and reproductive processes of women by health personnel, which is expressed as dehumanized treatment, an abuse of medication, and to convert the natural processes into pathological ones, bringing with it loss of autonomy and the ability to decide freely about their bodies and sexuality, negatively impacting the quality of life of women.”

Jill at the Unnecessarean explains: “Under the new law, the following acts executed by care providers are considered obstetric violence:

(1) Untimely and ineffective attention of obstetric emergencies; (2) Forcing the woman to give birth in a supine position, with legs raised, when the necessary means to perform a vertical delivery are available; (3) Impeding the early attachment of the child with his/her mother without a medical cause thus preventing the early attachment and blocking the possibility of holding, nursing or breast-feeding immediately after birth; (4) Altering the natural process of low-risk delivery by using acceleration techniques, without obtaining voluntary, expressed and informed consent of the woman; (5) Performing delivery via cesarean section, when natural childbirth is possible, without obtaining voluntary, expressed, and informed consent from the woman.”

I personally think this is an exciting and important development in the ongoing and very necessary evolution of terms related to bodily autonomy and reproductive health and justice. We desperately need better language and standards to ensure that women maintain full bodily rights during their pregnancy, and that they don’t experience violence as a result of their pregnancy status, or ever. Ultimately, execution and enforcement of this new legal definition will prove the real test for how feminist and progressive it can be. But I think it’s an important step forward in the necessary redefinition and creation of terms.

For more on the need to redefine and reshape issues of consent, check out discussions this week around Canada’s consideration of “advanced consent”, as well as the ever-excellent Line Campaign. You can also check out groundbreaking work by people like Michelle J. Anderson, Dean and Professor of Law at CUNY School of Law and a leading scholar on rape law, who have devoted their careers to redefining legal definitions of consent.

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman is a writer and advocate focusing on race, gender, and sexual and reproductive rights. In addition to serving as an Executive Director at Feministing, Lori is the Director of Global Communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Lori has previously worked at the United Nations Foundation, the International Women’s Health Coalition, and Human Rights Watch, and has written for a host of print and digital properties including Rookie Magazine, The Grio, and the New York Times Magazine. She regularly appears on radio and television, and has spoken at college campuses across the U.S. about topics like the politics of black hair, transnational movement building, and the undercover feminism of Nicki Minaj. In 2014, she was named to The Root 100 list of the nation's most influential African Americans, and to the Forbes Magazine list of the "30 Under 30" successful people in media.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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