“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 Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

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

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  • unnecesarean

    I haven’t logged in here in ages.

    Lori (or anyone), e-mail me if you want the full article. unnecesarean [at] gmail


  • Shannon Drury

    This is very exciting news. I was clueless about this as a feminist issue (despite having birthed two kiddos of my own) until I started following The Feminist Breeder’s blog:

  • Ms. Smarty Pants

    I wish this sort of thing would fly here, but it’s unlikely in the near future.

    One thing that’s important to think about is what constitutes informed consent. I’ve coached several friends through their births, and some hospitals are great at being hands off and only doing what is necessary, others are extremely invasive and treat the woman like she is a walking death trap that needs to be poked and prodded. There is no consent – if you say no, they say too bad, and then shame you for threatening the life of your baby. It’s horrifying.

    The whole medical culture has to change, and I just don’t have a lot of faith that this will happen any time soon, because it’s tied so strongly to so many other aspects of culture, and given the Republican/conservative wave into Congress, it worries me more than a little.

  • kimmp

    And all of this is exactly why any future children I may opt to have will be had in my own home. My son’s birth wasn’t overly horrible but it wasn’t everything it could have been. I even had a midwife. Every ten minutes they were asking me if I wanted an epidural. I said no the first eight times, why would it change the ninth time?! I had an episitomy despite the midwife’s low rate there, she said she had to do it. I was given pitocin without being told what was going on because I dilated to 9 and hadn’t gotten to 10 after an hour or so. Truthfully, I don’t like that I agreed to it, but after that when they offered the epidural I caved.
    Birth is too medical and the vast majority of the time it has absolutely not reason to be.

  • Amelia

    I also think that health care workers need to remember more carefully to ask consent every time they touch a person, but MOST ESPECIALLY when they’re touching someone else’s genitals.
    But this is a great step in the right direction. “implied consent” (which is, for example, when a nurse comes at you with a blood pressure machine, and you hold out your arm) only works when the person knows what is about to happen. I’ve heard and read a few stories about women not knowing what was going on, and feeling violated by people touching them without permission.