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‘Rampant and heartbreaking’: Stories of mistreatment of women in childbirth prompt calls for action

The stories from women across Canada featured in a CBC News investigation last week about alleged mistreatment and abuse in the delivery room have inspired 130 more women to share their own traumatic experiences and advocacy groups to demand action.

But many of the responses CBC News has received via email and on social media also expressed outrage over the comments from Jennifer Blake, CEO of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC) — the national organization for obstetricians, which describes itself as “a leading authority on reproductive health care” — who told CBC she hadn’t heard any complaints of women being mistreated or abused during childbirth.

“Over the years and reflecting on the issues that have come up in complaints — in any of the leadership jobs I have held — disrespect and abusive behaviour has not been raised,” she wrote CBC News in an email.

“I cannot say the same for places in the world where women are devalued — and I cannot say it never happens — but it would be seen as an unacceptable aberration if it had.”

Dr. Jennifer Blake

Jennifer Blake, CEO of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC), has been criticized for her comments in a CBC News story last week about women who say they were mistreated during childbirth. (Courtesy Dr. Jennifer Blake)

Those comments “flabbergasted” Wendy Jolliffe, co-founder of the Ottawa-based Informed Choice Coalition, which advocates for women’s rights during childbirth. She wrote to Blake and the SOGC with some advice.

“I urge her to visit any playground, community play group, or read any comments in Facebook ‘Mommy groups.’ The stories of condescension at the hands of obstetricians and the painful memories are rampant and heartbreaking.”

Mistreatment ‘commonplace’

Other advocacy groups across the country expressed similar shock that the problem didn’t seem to be on the SOGC’s radar, as did individuals who work in the health-care sector.

Dionne Miazdyck-Shield of the Maternal Health Consumer Group of Saskatchewan, wrote: “As a group of 177 women who have experienced all levels of mistreatment during birth, and spoken to thousands of women about their births, we know that mistreatment and bullying in birth are commonplace.”

Dionne Miazdyck-Shield

Dionne Miazdyck-Shield of the Maternal Health Consumer Group of Saskatchewan says mistreatment and bullying of women during childbirth is ‘commonplace.’ (Dionne Miazdyck-Shield)

In an open letter on its Facebook group, Birth Trauma Ontario says Blake’s comments speak to the “systemic problem that birthing mothers encounter.”

“No one in leadership will address this pervasive issue.”

Anne Simmonds, nurse and assistant professor in the faculty of nursing at the University of Toronto, says it’s definitely an issue worthy of attention.

“This is not a case of ‘bad’ nurse or doctor or a ‘demanding’ patient. When women come away from a birth experience feeling devalued, it is just that — a feeling that their knowledge, their plans, their wishes were not valued,” she wrote. “If women claim that they were not heard when they were ‘crying out in pain’ or that they were ‘ignored’ when screaming to stop what they perceived to be a rough vaginal examination, we have to take these claims seriously, as there are implications for the giving and withdrawal of consent.”

Lorraine Fontaine, who runs the Quebec-based group Regroupement Naissance-Renaissance, which supports women’s rights in childbirth, says Blake’s comments were “disappointing but not surprising.”

“Much of the disrespect women are experiencing during childbirth remains hidden.”

‘No one in leadership will address this pervasive issue.’
– Birth Trauma Ontario

The CBC News investigation discovered hundreds of complaints made to hospitals and health authorities around the country and heard the stories of dozens of women who allege mistreatment by hospital staff. Some said staff verbally abused them with disrespectful and degrading comments and yelling.

Some of the women said they were subject to coercive behaviour, such as being told they would kill their babies if they didn’t accept a certain course of treatment. Others said they had procedures performed without their consent, such as episiotomies (a cut made between the vagina and anus to widen the vaginal opening) and vaginal exams. Still others alleged doctors performed procedures like manual removals of placentas, C-sections and suturing without sufficient or proper anesthesia.

Jessica Ervin

Jessica Ervin was featured in CBC’s initial investigation of alleged mistreatment in the delivery room. She says a doctor performed a vaginal exam without her consent. (Submitted by Jessica Ervin)

Dozens of CBC readers have since shared their own similar experiences.

Marsha Sheehan of Ottawa wrote about what she says happened after the birth of her son in 2012.

“While I was lying there prone in stirrups, my son on my chest and the doctor between my legs stitching me up, I felt a sharp pinch, flinched and said, ‘Ouch.’ He stopped what he was doing, looked at me and said, ‘Listen, honey, I have to do this or your husband will be angry with me.’

I was gobsmacked. I just pushed a baby out of my vagina, and you’re making jokes about my husband’s potential lack of sexual pleasure if you were to stop stitching up my birth injury?”

Calls to action

Advocacy groups in four provinces — Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec — responded by calling for action.

Dionne Miazdyck-Shield of the Maternal Health Consumer Group of Saskatchewan wants SOGC and the Canadian Association of Midwives to “formally recognize the problems of mistreatment and lack of informed consent on procedures” and for the SOGC “to promote a culture shift in maternity care.”

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Wendy Jolliffe of the Informed Choice Coalition in Ottawa called on the SOGC to “cease denying women’s stories and to investigate the underlying cause of why women feel this way.”

“Once you have discovered the root cause, physician education is imperative to healing the damage that has been inflicted.”

In a statement sent to CBC News on Thursday, Blake said her organization was “saddened to hear the stories of women whose birth experience felt disrespectful or even abusive.”

“We will redouble our efforts to ensure that Canadian women experience childbirth as a life event in which they feel deeply respected and safe.”

Positive responses

Not everybody who responded to the CBC News investigation had something negative to say about their maternity care. Many readers, such as Kristin Chetwyn of Yarmouth, N.S., expressed gratitude for the doctors and nurses who made their childbirth a positive experience.

“I have heard so many horror stories and consider myself so fortunate that my labour and delivery was so fantastic. Couldn’t have asked for better nurses or doctors,” she wrote on CBC’s Facebook page.