– Sarah McCarthy writes about last week’s High Court case in which a hospital brought a pregnant woman to court to try and compel her to have a C-Section. This post originally appeared on Sarah’s personal blog here.
How would you feel if I told you that a hospital in Ireland went to court last week, because they felt it necessary to tie a woman down, forcibly give her an anaesthetic, and slice open her abdomen, then her uterus? Horrified; disgusted; transported back to a time ofsymphysiotomies and the Magdalene Laundries? Well, they did.
Last Saturday morning, Waterford Regional Hospital made an emergency application to the High Court in an attempt to compel a pregnant woman to undergo a caesarean section. Lawyers for the hospital said that the woman was refusing to give consent for the procedure, but that a “natural” birth would pose a risk to her unborn child. The woman had a scar on her uterus from a previous caesarean and there was a risk that it would rupture during a vaginal delivery. If this were to happen the baby could have died or have had severe brain damage and the woman herself would have been at risk of a haemorrhage.
The medical staff said that the latest scans were “non-reassuring” and the consultant obstetrician said that he had “advised her strongly” to have a caesarean. The Senior Counsel for the hospital stated that the Judge needed to balance the right of the woman to refuse medical treatment versus the right to life of the unborn child. The right to life of the unborn is guaranteed in the Irish Constitution under Article 40.3.3 °.
Just before the Judge was about to rule on the case, the court heard that the woman had “consented” to a C-section and an emergency order was no longer necessary.
In the six news articles I’ve read on this story, there isn’t any mention of why the woman wanted to opt for a vaginal birth; the only reference is that she would have “liked” to. She may have had a perfectly valid, well thought-out reason, but the mainstream press don’t seem too concerned about the actual wishes of this person. It does say that over the weekend she began to waver between consenting to the procedure on the Sunday or Monday as she wanted her husband to be present if possible; the medical staff did not consider this a reasonable request.
Statistically speaking, because a C-section is a surgical procedure, it is riskier to both the mother and the foetus than vaginal birth. The risks associated with a caesarean include increased risk of bleeding, infection of the incision, the urinary tract, or the tissue lining the uterus, injury to surrounding organs such as the bladder and the bowel, and in rare cases blood clots, wound hematoma, and pulmonary embolus.
Now, I understand that this case had its own particular risks associated with undergoing a vaginal birth. However it’s not as if the doctors were asking this woman to undergo an easy, risk-free option. A C-section comes with its own dangers and as this woman is a consenting adult who had undergone the procedure before, we have to assume that she was well aware of this. The right to refuse medical treatment exists because we trust people to make their own decisions about their bodies. It reflects the principle of bodily autonomy, something the Irish State is loath to grant women.
This case is reminiscent of the attitude taken when symphysiotomies were performed on women against or without their consent. This procedure involved sawing open a woman’s pelvic bone during childbirth. The subsequent childbirth was excruciating, the recovery time was lengthy, and many were left incontinent and/or incapable of enjoying sexual activity. The practice was used so as to avoid performing a C-section, which limited the amount of children a woman could have. It was used by Doctors who objected to family planning and was performed on women in Ireland up until 1984.
Under Irish law, women are treated as incubators. The right to bodily autonomy is just one of the many rights which we no longer have while pregnant. Our right to health is automatically diminished, as we have no option to take the less-risky route of terminating the pregnancy. Rape victims have no right to choose not to go through the added trauma of invasive exams, ante- and post-natal care, and the birth process. Women with non-viable foetuses have no right not to extend this heartbreak for further months and go through the trauma of birth. We are bearers of children and little else. If we are not willing to give ourselves over to this task we can be restrained, refused measures to preserve our health, and in some cases, forced to sacrifice our lives.
This case made clear the lack of respect given for women’s decisions about their own bodies. If this woman had continued to withhold her consent and the court order granted, hospital staff were prepared to physically restrain her and cut her open against her will. This is yet another example of the disempowering and dangerous effects the 8thAmendment has on women. If we want to achieve any semblance of equality between the genders in this country, we have to fight for its repeal.