Tuesday, June 12, 2012

At a loss for terms: Affronts to Birth and Sex

There are a lot of parallels between birth and sex.

Sex between two people who have chosen to be intimate with each other - is an important part of many people's lives - for many people their sex life is a critical part of their life from which they derive much enjoyment and fulfilment. It is part of being human. It is respectful and both people have their needs met. It is intimate and trusting. It is a willful sharing of self with another human being. It is respected. It has the potential to have lasting reprecussions for the individuals involved and should not be entered into lightly. The decision to have sex should be well informed and an act of free will. Consensual sex is empowering and satisfying for both parties to it. Under the best circumstances, sex is one of the most beautiful and intimate experiences a person can have.

Similarly, pregnancy and birth are an important part of many people's lives. It is part of being human. It involves making oneself vulnerable and having to trust others. It is an event which many people plan and prepare for well in advance. It has the potential to have lasting reprecussions for the individuals involved and should not be approached lightly. The decision to become pregnant, continue with the pregnancy and give birth should also be well informed and an act of free will. Under the best circumstances, birth is also one of the most beautiful and intimate experiences a person can have - it can be both empowering and satisfying.

Both birth and sex are parts of being human that are considered sacred and both are deserving of the same degree of respect and protection at law.

Sexual crimes are well defined and understood. They are considered to be among the most repugnant, unconscionable, and reprehensible crimes that an indivdual can perpetrate on another. When a person uses the term "rape" it is well understood the seriousness of the violation. Calling rape, "non-consensual sex" sanitizes the act, it is effectively "the same" but it does not conjure up the same strong feelings about the degree of the wrong done to the person subjected to it. Similarly, calling rape an assualt is also technically correct, rape is a type of assualt - but when a person says that they have been assaulted, there again is some ambiguity about the wrong that has been done to that person. When a person says they've been raped, it is understood that they have been aggrieved in a most serious way during one of the most intimate acts - rape is a violent deprivation of personal autonomy. The victim is given support and understanding, and the perpetrator is subject to being accountable for his or her actions. Sex is protected, certain actions during sex, particularly those that are non-consensual or take advantage of the vulnerable are considered criminal and are subject to sanction - the limitation period for prosecuting "sex crimes" is often extended in light of the emotional toll these crimes take upon their victims.

Despite having many strong parallels to sex, birth seems to be a part of being human that is still subject to abuse and grave violations of personal autonomy - it appears to enjoy a lesser degree of respect and protection at law. Most violations during birth are not criminal, and many are not subject to sanction. The limitation period for prosecuting violations during birth is often limited, despite often having a similar emotional toll on victims. The violations perpetrated during pregnancy and birth are poorly defined and understood and in many ways the protection at law given to birth is much like the protection of sex, decades ago - back when blaming and shaming the victim for the crime perpetrated on them was still considered the norm, back when it was thought that a husband could never rape his wife. Back when holding the perpetrator to account was much more challenging. Back before the laws and jurisprudence evolved. Many victims never came forward, shouldering the burden of the abuse alone - ashamed and fearful of what others might think of them should they come forward and speak out about what they had experienced. Back when only the most egregious violations were ever prosecuted.

Currently, there is little language that adequately describes the experience of many women and the deep feelings of violation that have been experienced by those women. They are left with the terms of "medical malpractice", "medical battery", "breach of fiduciary duty", "medical negligence" - all while technically correct are lacking in describing the significance of the violation experienced for many women. Women who have experienced what is nothing less than maternal assault, abuse and neglect - are left even without adequate language to uniquely describe their experience, and so many have adopted the language that has long been associated with sexual assault and abuse. It is an understandable adoption - and in no way are they meaning to discount the experience of rape and sexual assault victims. Rather they are merely trying convey the grave seriousness of the violation of personal autonomy that they may have experienced, one that may indeed be on par with those who have survived sexual assault. Many of these women have been violated by those who they trusted most deeply at a time in their life when they were at their most vulnerable and some have had their own health and safety or that of their children threatened. I do not wish to use the term "birth rape" in describing my experience - however, I find myself at a loss for a term that adequately describes what happend to me. If I were to define it, it would be as follows: an intended or negligent violation of personal autonomy that threatens or is reasonably perceived to threaten the physical or emotional health and safety of an individual or their fetus during partuition."

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