A birthing revolution

New documentary that reframes childbirth as a human rights issue launches all over the world.

Agnes Gereb 370 (photo credit: www.freedomforbirth.com)
Agnes Gereb 370
(photo credit: www.freedomforbirth.com)
Today there will be multiple screenings of a film, at various public and private venues around the country, which the makers and an international network of professionals hope will “make waves across the world.” The documentary in question is called Freedom for Birth and the 60-minute work, as British director-producer Toni Harman’s official blurb puts it, “reframes childbirth as the most pressing global human rights issue today.” The Israeli screenings are part of an international drive to bring attention to the issue of women’s right to dictate the conditions of their childbirth experience, incorporating some 1,000 showings of the film in 51 countries.
Harman became interested in the project when she heard about a Hungarian gynecologist/midwife by the name of Agnes Gereb who had helped to deliver over 3,000 babies at home, was imprisoned, later placed under house arrest and subsequently sentenced to a second term in prison. Gereb’s license to practice medicine was suspended by the Hungarian authorities for three years in 2007 as punishment for the 2000 death of a newborn baby, and in 2009 she was charged for manslaughter relating to an earlier home birth when a baby died after a difficult labor.
Gereb was arrested in October 2010 in Budapest, after being accused of negligent malpractice. Her lawyer, Andrea Pelle, claimed that the protocols of the trial were falsified. The arrest sparked a fierce reaction among home birth activists worldwide and the British Royal College of Midwives condemned Gereb’s detention. On December 21, 2010, Gereb was freed from prison and placed under house arrest, and on March 23, 2011, she received a two-year minimum-security prison sentence. Freedom for Birth is a 60-minute campaigning documentary featuring leading birth experts and international human rights lawyers all calling for radical change to the world’s maternity systems.
According to Israeli home-birth midwife Michael Bonstein, there is a wider fundamental social issue at stake here.
“The role of the woman, when she is pregnant and gives birth, does not have such a high status and, I believe, that standing is continually deteriorating. The role of motherhood is not well appreciated today.”
What has led to this state of affairs? “I think it may be due to the fact that woman’s role in society is becoming more and more masculine, that women aspire to be more manlike,” Bonstein says. “In society today, there is a defined male role and a defined female role, and the woman’s role is considered inferior, and that includes the wonderful role of motherhood.
But, in society today, women are expected to return to work as quickly as possible after having a baby, and the baby is entrusted – neglected – to all sorts of frameworks. It is sad.”
One of the leading activists featured in Freedom for Birth is Hermine Hayes- Klein, a US lawyer who was one of the of organizers of the Human Rights in Childbirth Conference, which took place at The Hague in the Netherlands earlier this year. Hayes-Klein rails against what has been described as “the conveyor belt system” hospital approach to the way women give birth in labor wards.
“The way that childbirth is being managed in many countries around the world is deeply problematic,” she notes. “Millions of pregnant women are pushed into hospitals, pushed onto their back and cut open. They are subject to unnecessary pharmaceutical and surgical interventions that their care providers openly admit to imposing on them for reasons of finance and convenience.”
Hayes-Klein says that there is growing awareness among pregnant women that they should enjoy greater control of how they bring their babies into the world.
“Women around the world are waking up to the fact that childbirth doesn’t have to be like this and it shouldn’t. Disrespect and abuse are not the necessary price of safety.”
Gereb’s international profile was appreciably raised by a Hungarian woman called Anna Ternovsky, whose first home birth was attended by Gereb. When she was pregnant a second time, faced by a somewhat unwelcoming view of home births by the Hungarian medical establishment, Ternovsky took her country to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg which ruled that Hungarian women must be allowed to the right to give birth at home. It was a landmark case that has major implications for childbirth around the world.
Bonstein says the state of affairs in this country is not exactly rosy either, particularly with regard to Health Ministry strictures on midwives attending home births.
“If a woman comes to hospital to give birth and, for example, she says she doesn’t want antibiotics, she can sign a statement to that effect and the hospital staff will continue to care for her. But if she refuses antibiotics during a home birth the midwife is prohibited from attending to the birth. The woman is forced to transfer to a hospital.”
Bonstein hopes today’s countrywide, and worldwide, screenings of Freedom for Birth will help to raise awareness of the wider issue of childbirth, and a woman’s right to choose where and how she wants to give birth.
“The Israel Midwives Association and the Nashim Korot Laledet [Women Call for Birth] organization are going to step up their activities to help promote the rights of women, so that they can control their own childbirth process,” says Bonstein. “It is a basic human right.”
Screenings of Freedom for Birth will take place in the Dyada Center Tel Aviv, Levinsky College in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Rosh Pina Cinematheque, Eilat, Gedera, Moshav Bait Zayit near Jerusalem, Ceasarea, Kiryat Tivon and many other locations around the country.
There will be discussions following some of the screenings. For more information about
Freedom for Birth: http://freedomforbirth.com, www.nasahimkorot.org.il