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What to Know About Your Birth Rights

Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on May 04, 2022

Giving birth is a significant life event that most people remember forever. While the birth of a child can be one of the most joyful memories of your life, childbirth trauma is an unfortunate reality. Up to 45% of mothers report experiencing birth trauma. Knowing your birth rights can help protect you from provider mistreatment and lower the risk of a traumatic birth experience. 

Read on to find out what you need to know about your childbirth rights.

What Is Birth Trauma?

Birth trauma is a severe injury that occurs during childbirth and seriously impacts your mental or physical health. Up to 33% of women develop symptoms of PTSD after a traumatic birth experience. 

Common causes of birth trauma include:

Symptoms of PTSD from birth trauma include:

  • Flashbacks or intrusive thoughts about your birth experience

  • Nightmares

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Anxiety

  • Extreme fear of another pregnancy or birth

  • Difficulty bonding with your baby

Patients who are part of other marginalized groups are at increased risk of experiencing birth trauma. This includes patients who are undocumented, mentally ill, transgender, incarcerated, patients who don't speak English, and patients of color.

What Are Birth Rights?

Birthrights are the human and legal rights a laboring patient has during childbirth. 

You have both human rights and legal rights during childbirth. Human rights are a matter of ethics and are your most basic, fundamental rights as a person, such as the right to free expression and the right to liberty. Legal rights are your rights under federal and local laws. While some human rights are also legal rights, some are not. 

In the U.S., many human rights for pregnant and laboring patients are not protected by law. For example, the U.S. is the only developed country where access to healthcare for pregnant people and infants is not guaranteed. 

Legal barriers in the U.S. can make it difficult or impossible for pregnant people to utilize some of their labor and delivery rights. For example, it's widely considered a fundamental human right to choose your birth setting. Still, state regulations around homebirth midwives can make it difficult or impossible to find a licensed care provider to attend an out-of-hospital birth in some areas. 

What Are My Human Rights in Childbirth?

Birthright examples include:

The Right to Autonomy
You have the right to decide what happens to your own body and to refuse recommended medications or procedures. For example, you have a right to refuse induction, decide whether or not to get an epidural, eat and drink during labor, and give birth in the position of your choice. You have the right to choose where to labor and give birth and leave the hospital or birth center against medical advice. Hospital policies do not override these rights.

The Right to Be Informed 
You have the right to be fully educated about any recommended medication or procedure, the possible risks and benefits, and your options. You have the right to choose any available option, including the option to do nothing. If you do not speak fluent English, you have the right to an interpreter to help you understand your options. 

The Right to Support
You have the right to choose your support providers during labor and delivery. These people may be your spouse or another relative, a friend, or trained support professional like a doula. You have the right to ask people to leave, including your support people and care providers.

The Right to Respect
You have the right to be treated and spoken to with respect by your care providers. Your care providers do not have the right to insult, threaten, coerce, or physically force you to do anything against your wishes. You have the right to be treated with respect regardless of age, race, national and ethnic origin, immigration status, socio-economic class, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or disability.

The Right to Parent
You have the right to refuse to be separated from your baby. You have the right to breastfeed or chest feed if you choose to do so. You have the right to make informed medical decisions for your baby, including refusing recommended care. However, healthcare providers must inform child protective services (CPS) if they believe that your refusal qualifies as abuse or neglect.

What Are My Legal Rights in Childbirth?

In the U.S., legal rights in childbirth are primarily determined at the state level. Practices like limitations on midwifery care, standards of care that prioritize fetal wellbeing over maternal wellbeing, and court-ordered c-sections can put a patient's legal rights and human rights in conflict.

However, some human rights for patients are protected by law. The right to autonomy, the right to refuse medical care, and the right to privacy all have well-established legal precepts.

What Can I Do if My Rights Are Violated?

If your pregnancy rights or rights during labor and delivery are being violated, you have several options: 

Document the Violation
Tell your provider to record the situation in your medical chart. You can also consider taking your own documentation, such as photos, video, recordings of conversations with your medical provider, or notes. You may need documentation in court or when filing a formal complaint.

State Your Wishes Out Loud

Precise, simple phrases such as "I do not consent" and "Stop, I am saying no" can help eliminate any confusion about your wishes. Ask your medical provider to confirm that they can hear you saying no and understand that you do not consent.

Ask to See Policies in Writing
You don't have to take your provider's word for it. Ask to see hospital policies or evidence-based information in writing. Ask for a second opinion if you'd like one.

Ask for More Information
Questions such as "Is this an emergency?" "What happens if we wait?" and "What are all of my options?" can help buy time and reopen communication between you and your care providers.

Talk to a Patient Advocate
Most hospitals have patient advocates who can step in to help resolve patient concerns or tense situations between patients and healthcare providers. 

File a Formal Complaint
If you've already experienced a violation, you have the right to file a formal complaint with the hospital, the hospital's regulatory agency, the state medical board, or all of the above.

Show Sources

SOURCES:
Harvard Law Review: "The Legal Infrastructure of Childbirth."

The Journal of Perinatal Education: "Traumatic Childbirth and Its Aftermath: Is There Anything Positive?"

National Advocates for Pregnant Women: "Birth Rights: A resource for everyday people to defend human rights during labor and birth."

National Partnership for Women and Families: "The Rights of Childbearing Women."

Trials: "Postpartum Early EMDR therapy Intervention (PERCEIVE) study for women after a traumatic birth experience: study protocol for a randomized controlled trial."

United Nations: "Human Rights."

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