This may surprise you all but I sometimes wish homebirth was illegal.*
Recently I saw a kind woman asking online what would be nice in a basket for her friend due to have her babe at home in the near future. There were lots of heartfelt suggestions from massage vouchers to biscuits which can be eaten one handed while breastfeeding a newborn. My first thought, because I tend to run away at the metaphorical mouth, was human rights. I’d like a basket of human rights, please. Gift wrapped? No no, just the same as everyone else’s would do, thanks. I don’t want a plastic bag, I brought my own calico number with a political statement on the side. But then I thought, actually what we need isn’t only human rights, what we need is an enemy that is honest about their actions. Why don’t they just make it a crime to birth at home? That’s what everyone wants, it would make it so easy to prosecute us all. Send the midwives to prison. Take the children. Give the women years of community service or minimum security gaol. Re-educate partners to their roles in preventing women’s exercising of their human rights. Bang. Done. No more mealy mouthed “expanding choices” double plus good speak, just a refreshing burst of honesty: birth outside of a hospital and we will put you in gaol. Simple.
I hear fairly regularly from consumers who’ve had GPs tell them homebirth is illegal. Do they really think this? I find it problematic to imagine GPs being so ignorant about law but then it’s also problematic to imagine that GPs would fail to inform us about the full range of options available to pregnant women. That couldn’t be, could it? After all, when I go in and ask what drugs are available to asthmatics no one says, “Well there’s only this one and that one, there are no others, they’re illegal!” Of course birthing outside of a hospital is in no way illegal in Australia. Not at all. There is no Act which says anything remotely like that. Those who seek to remove human rights are far more clever and strategic than that.
The far smarter plan, of course, is to create as much fear and shame as possible around birth generally and birthing outside of hospital and hope that women and their families will police themselves right out of homebirth. It also means that politicians never have to own up to their actions, they can continue to swathe them in the rhetoric of choice. Removing most women’s access to midwives who would support them to birth at home is obviously “expanding women’s choices”, in the same way that episiotomy protects women’s perineums from damage. It also gives us nothing to concretely struggle against because all opposition to this Orwellian “reform” is like struggling with fairy floss. You bite down on this massive ball of poisonous, highly coloured crap, only to feel it disappear to grit between your teeth. The more they can tie us up in Senate enquiries, letter writing, inventing new overseeing bodies, writing new position statements that no one but the writers of Yes, Minister understand anyway, desperately trying to understand what the hell all the rules make, the less we have something concrete against which to struggle. The brilliance of the blanket suppression of birthing rights is how it’s a hydra of massive proportions and no matter how many heads you confront, there are more waiting and no song to lull Fluffy to sleep.
A simple Act of parliament making us criminals would be something open, honest and able to be confronted. If birthing outside of hospitals is so dangerous and irresponsible why isn’t it illegal? Why are we fined for failing to restrain children in cars if birth is the place where all the risk lies? Instead we struggle with the abuse of judicial power which can be wielded in coronial courts where there is no onus of proof and there are no real rules of evidence. When coronial processes are treated like prosecutions but the prosecution is on the same team as the judge, and the justice is tailored to the opinions of counsel assisting, there is no justice. These are proceedings which have no judicial credibility but are clearly tools of punishment and oppression targeting some of the most vulnerable families and professionals in the country on the back of personal tragedy. When grieving women’s babies are used as the weapons to flog their midwives and our decision making processes are ridiculed with caricatures of Bad Mothers put abroad in a colluding media, there is no hope of freedom, dignity or compassion. The law is being abused and employed as a weapon of social control to keep women in line. It’s very difficult to explain to people that no, it’s not illegal to birth at home but only midwives in this category can support women in that category (but only with ante and postnatal care, not the birth) and this national body decides who’s in and who’s out. There is no governing body meant to divide up consumers into the Yes or No baskets, it’s been left to midwives instead so those who maintain registration risk losing it every time they take on a woman outside of the Yes basket. Given how obstetrics works, the majority of women are in the No basket and yet they birth just fine at home. Some midwives stand with women and refuse these categories. Some are exploiting it to make money. Corrupt systems breed and support corrupt behaviours.
Our communities struggle with mischievous and vindictive reports to DoCS by hospital staff and disgruntled collaborating midwives who now work under the direct control of obstetricians in another one of those “expanding women’s choices” things that make no actual sense when brought out into daylight.
Women are bullied, berated and punished if they transfer to hospital.
Families are refused birth certificates and experience intrusive questioning with no legal basis when applying for birth certificates and the baby bonus.
Families are threatened with court orders removing children, women are threatened with being sectioned and midwives can be too scared to accompany clients to hospital in dire circumstances because to do so would leave them open to harassment by hospital staff.
Women are threatened with DoCS reports (or actually reported) for refusing to feed babies with artificial baby milk.
Midwives are having malicious and baseless reports made against them by hospital staff which tie them up for long periods of time unable to practise.
Women are reported to DoCS for breastfeeding older babies and children and cosleeping is considered a suspect activity.
Women have had police turn up on the doorstep because hospital staff have reported them for not turning up to be induced or on suspicion of planning a homebirth.
Hospital staff are making reports to the police and coroners in circumstances which wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in hospitals.
There are no laws making hospitals or people who work in them to be the birth police, charged with protecting babies from their mothers’ decision making. It is simply a culture of bullying and control which lives like quicksand on the lesser trodden paths of our society. It is one of the biggest open secrets in Australia at the moment. The press won’t cover it, politicians won’t own up to it, we’re called paranoid and conspiracy theorists when we try to tell people about it. The growing numbers of us facing coronial proceedings are beginning to spread word of this among the legal community who are dealing with circumstances most have never seen, nor imagined before, in long and varied careers. Equally interesting is how only some stillbirths outside of hospitals achieve inquiry status. (And sadly, very very few in the hospital system.) It’s clear that it depends who you are, or who the attending midwife is, before your baby’s death attracts the notice of the state.
I think that we are going to reach the peak of obstetric control in Australia in the next few years. They will never succeed in forcing us all into hospitals to birth but they are willing to give it a good go. If they would all just be honest about it and criminalise us, we could run a repeal campaign. Community campaigns changed laws in each state which criminalised homosexual sex, a consenting activity between adults which occurs in people’s homes, generally speaking, and which was rightly judged to be no one’s business but those consenting. I have friends in Sydney who talk about having to rent two bedroom flats so that real estate agents wouldn’t tell the police two men had rented premises with one bedroom. They talk about midnight raids on private homes, dragging them out of bed under suspicion of having had sex. We moved on from that, when can we move on to accept the idea that adults birthing in their own homes are equally entitled to the protection of the law or to simply be left the hell alone? The difference, of course, is that homosexual sex was between men who were unlikely to be pregnant. Their bodies are different from the contested public zones of women’s bodies where nothing we do is private and we walk around in a permanent state of consent. We will have equal marriage rights in this country long before women’s bodily autonomy is recognised in law. Actually I doubt our bodily integrity will ever be enshrined in law. The goal posts controlling our lives can never be brought to so concrete a form nor our oppression challenged in such a profound way. Far better to keep us all believing the myth of this equality we have supposedly reached now we’re allowed to vote.
- That’s a joke. Sort of.