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The Baby Matrix

15 Oct

Yesterday I was reminded again why the world needs feminism. Why everyone, men, women, children do. And how it is sometimes hard when you start seeing gender in everything and how it permeates so many facets of lives and absolutely every facet of reproduction and child rearing. And how difficult it is to make someone – who does not see the world this way – understand without him or her accusing you of exaggeration.

But let’s start at the beginning. Yesterday, I went to the hospital to visit a baby. Not just any baby, my boyfriend’s sister’s baby. Which, by extension, is something like my niece and I am very proud. She is the tiniest baby with the most hair in the world. As I stood watching her, it seemed like she was singing to herself while she kept touching her face, not understanding that her hands and face all belonged to her. She is incredibly cute and adorable, obviously. However, I cannot be sure if she was already, like I suspect, singing Yellow Submarine to herself because I didn’t hear any sounds coming out of her mouth. Why is that? Because I could only see the tiny human from behind a glass wall and I wasn’t able to touch her. Do I suffer from the Plague or any other contagious disease which could potentially be fatal to newborn beings? Not that I know of.

The hospital I went to look at the baby was a Hungarian hospital. Hungary has a pretty advanced health system in terms of the actual treatment, proven, for example, by the fact that gazillions of Austrians and Germans come over the border every year for dental treatment because it is good and cheap.

But when it comes to newborns, what I saw yesterday is this: the mother, after the birth, is normally put in a room with one or two other mothers in the maternity ward. The maternity ward is a no go area for anyone who is not a mother, a baby, a doctor or a nurse. This means that you cannot visit the mother in her room, for reasons that evade me. If you want to see her, she has to come out. I guess one of the reasons is that the mother can get some rest and is not subjected to strangers visiting someone else in the room when she doesn’t feel well. However, this means, that a) the mother is totally alone there with no family or support to comfort her (the mum I visited told me she couldn’t stop crying when initially she was totally alone in a room and that she appreciates the presence of another mother now so that she has at least someone to talk to) and b) for you to visit the mother, she actually has to come out at the maternity ward. Yesterday, there were about five other mothers standing outside the maternity ward in a hall which had two iron benches and a snack machine and lots of crude lighting. All of these mothers wore night or hospital gowns and some additionally carried around their urinary catheters in a plastic bag. Now that is the state in which you want lots of strangers to see a tube carrying your pee emerge from between your legs, right?

But even worse than that, for me, was that the mums were not allowed to bring the babies outside. So there were five little ones in tiny beds on wheels propped behind the glass door for relatives to watch them and take pictures and make baby noises. The most positive hospital memories I have (well, the only positive ones) are from visiting friends and family with newborns. You sit around their bed, you marvel at the tiny hands and feet and their funny grimaces. Everyone takes turns in holding the baby and remarking how much it looks like Uncle Michael when he came out. You might wipe away a tear when you witness older siblings seeing their younger brother or sister for the first time, carefully stroking their head and then doing it again for the camera. You help the new mum with adjusting to this new life a bit, by reassuring that you are there, that you will be there through all the poo and baby vomit and sleepless nights ahead and that her baby is indeed the best, cleverest, most beautiful, funniest human being on this earth, the bullet that killed Kennedy.

None of this was possible in this hospital. And the very worst part, the thing that just put me over the edge, was that it was not even possible for the dad. Indeed, the person who actually took part in making the baby was not allowed to touch it either! He was allowed to stay in the delivery room with the mother for two hours after the birth and from then on he could only see his newborn child through glass. If there are minor complications during the birth which cause the mother to be very weak afterwards and prompt her to need a lot of rest for a couple of days during which she is unable to care for the baby, the baby’s father is not allowed to stay with his baby, not even during the day. The baby is cared for by the nurses and will, in that case, have little physical contact with anyone.

For the sake of completeness, in this hospital, it was  possible to pay for a private room in which the parents of the baby could stay together. So rich dads get to care for their newborns. In this room, however, no other visitors could be received either.

This experience was disturbing on so many levels I couldn’t believe the gender stereotyping and the sexism that this system manifested. I was outraged on behalf of all the fathers that had to look at their baby through glass not being able to hold and fed them and sing to them. On behalf of the mothers who had to go through the humiliating experience of carrying around their pee in front of twenty people they had never seen before. On behalf of the baby who should be able to experience physical contact from both their parents, as it is proven to be important to their development and well-being, particularly right after the birth and during the following days. And on behalf of them both for the obvious institutionalisation of gender roles and ideas on how child rearing should be organised and who should have a say in it. Mum stays in and cares for the baby, dad goes out to celebrate the arrival of his child with a couple of drinks (because, what else could he do, not being allowed to be at the hospital?), showing up every day with flowers and good words but not actively being able to help. Now many people only spend two days in the hospital, but with complications, it can easily amount to more than a week in which a baby can only be seen behind glass. I was appalled by the paternalism this whole system reeked of, telling grown up women that it is their and only their obligation to tend to their babies needs and that they mustn’t let anybody else touch the precious offspring (offspring which were totally healthy and, if it weren’t for the complications because of which the mum had to rest a little longer in hospital, would long be home and cuddled by friends and family).

For me, this was such an obvious manifestation of sexism and symptoms of antique gender stereotypes in a country in which a man is entitled to a grand five days of paternity leave and in which the paternity leave can only be shared after the child turned one, the constitution calls the family the ‘fundamental framework for community, in which the pre-eminent values are loyalty, faith and love’, and Fidesz (the governing party) politicians refuse to call domestic violence by its common Hungarian name (translated as violence in the family) because the family is a cozy sacred nest of peace and cannot be besmirched by associating it with anything negative. A country in which a member of parliament for the government party physically assaults his wife in such a severe manner that she ends up in hospital and, when asked, explains to the bewildered nation that his wife tripped over the pet dog. And a country iwhere another Fidesz member of parliament claims the reason of domestic violence is the fact that women don’t make enough children in order to be respected within the family and calls upon ‘ladies’ to produce two, three or four children ‘as a gift for the fatherland’ before  they ‘can fulfill themselves and may work at different jobs’.

But I am told that sexism has no influence on this particular case, on how maternity wards are organised and on the rights and obligations of mothers and fathers there. I am told that the reason are practical issues, or maybe corruption (that the hospital wants people to pay for private rooms) etc. I see how it can be hard to associate a specific case with a broader, systemic issue of society. I am not claiming that other issues are not also at work here. But it is frustrating to try to explain something that is so obvious to you to someone who just totally doesn’t see it. It makes me feel like in the sexist matrix. And it is easy to be told or to even feel like a fundamentalist, to feel like the one crashing the party when everyone else just wants to admire the baby (from far away). But these things are interconnected. How should dads and mums get a sense of child rearing as a shared responsibility when a newborn baby gets cut of basically any contact between themselves and their father in the first days of their life? How should couples arrive at the conclusion that they both have to tend to the physical and emotional needs of this tiny person when one of them is prohibited from doing so by the same institution which patronises them and puts their baby behind glass walls? And how should new mothers not feel left abandoned to the child-rearing tasks in a place where they are physically, actually, alone? All these are leads for and expressions of greater societal persuasions, convictions held by a majority that see a division of household/child-rearing labour and gaining employment and financial support of the family for women and men. They manifest themselves everywhere in the world, on all levels, in law and policy, as well as in the cribs of tiny humans.

How are maternity wards organized in your country? Can dads come and visit or even stay overnight? Are visitors allowed to see the mum and  baby in their room?

The Black List

10 Mar

I recently moved to the UK. As many women before me, I had to get registered with a General Practitioner (GP) in order to get birth control. The joys of having yet another unknown person ask me the most personal questions, giving me unsolicited advice about my personal reproductive choices and even worse, getting acquainted with my vagina are, as also many women will agree, not the joys we daydream about.

The great thing -I was told by the NHS website- is that I could choose my GP as long as it is a practice that is appointed to my postcode. I went into a review for GP practices and was disappointed by the kind of reviews I saw: they all reflected the amount of time they had to wait, whether the secretary was nice, and other banal information.

So here I was, asking myself, how do I choose a vagina friendly GP? And by this I mean, how can I make sure I go to a practice where my choices are met by a respectful, open-minded health operator, that will provide any service I may need in the future without a judgement?

I know what you’re thinking: just say it. Yes, I want to know I go to a GP that will not sabotage me in the future in case I ever need an abortion. No, I’ve never had one and am not planning to ever need one. No, I don’t think I would be terrible if I ever do and actually believe it’s my right.  I do realize abortion is not a right in the UK, this post I believe illustrates greatly some of the issues around abortion in this country.

Maybe it’s not even about knowing I can get one, but making sure I’m not with a GP that in principle believes I shouldn’t get one in any circumstances, or even worse, would on purpose deny me of an abortion, a service I am supposed to be able to get in the UK.

While I was googling away to inform myself on this issue, I  found out that in 2007, nearly a quarter of GPs were refusing to refer women for terminations and a fifth wanted the procedure banned outright. Yesterday, the Independent also raised the issue by reporting that since July 1991, when the abortion pill RU486 was introduced, less than 3,000 women have received it, while more than 60,000 women should have had the option of this non-surgical termination. Less than a half of the NHS hospitals that practice abortions offer the pill. GPs fail to tell their patients they have this option over surgical pregnancy termination.

I’ve been whining about this to friends and they’ve expressed worries from “the other side”. Do I think all GPs should be forced to practice abortions? No, I am a true believer of conscientious objection and think GPs should have a right not to do something against their beliefs. And I believe the NHS system has addressed this and GPs can opt out of providing this service.

But I think: shouldn’t we, women living the UK, have the certainty that we will get a GP that will provide us this service? That’s when the shit hits the wall in some arguments and people suggest I am creating a black list of doctors based on their beliefs, which could create massive discrimination issues. Fair point.

But then, what about us? If we have evidence that GPs are, because of beliefs or any other reason, sabotaging thousand’s of women’s access to a health service, shouldn’t they be accountable for this? After all, once the legal period has passed, that’s it, you’re stuck in a very difficult situation. I briefly thought of the Seinfeld episode “The Pilot”, when Jerry and George write about a show in which a person is convicted with becoming another person’s butler for a while by a judge. Could we then, in such a world, give the baby once it’s born to the GP? Sorry man, you failed to provide me this service, the direct consequence being me having this baby, so here you go: have fun!

As cynical as this may sound, we do have to think about a solution. And I believe the fact that the provision of abortion by NHS personnel is addressed around a GP’s right to opt out, rather than their duty to do so is a critical starting point. If we knew we had GPs that don’t believe in antibiotics and refuse to prescribe them for infections, what would the NHS do? Would they say: don’t worry, you can opt out. Or would they say: the consequence of you not doing this is critical to a person’s health and access to services, so if you won’t do it, you need to tell us now.

I understand that the basic problem is that abortion isn’t a right. And yes, that would fix a lot of problems. But in the meantime…we don’t go around asking if every health service we get is a right in itself, do we? “But doctor, I have a right to chemotherapy when I have cancer”… or “I have a right to painkillers when I’ve hurt myself and am in pain”. Or would we accept a situation in which a person’s died because they didn’t get a blood transfusion in a hospital due to their doctor’s beliefs? We would all be outraged. We consider all these services as part of our right to health and the consequent obligation of this is our State’s obligation to provide us with all it entails. But we are not outraged in this case… not all of us anyway.

So yes, I do think there should be a list. Maybe not a black but a white list. Doctors that are willing to provide this service should enlist and women looking for this service should have a guarantee that the GP they go to will have no problem in giving them what they’re entitled to.

The system still sees this as a favor, an option, something women cannot demand, something for a holy GP to decide in her behalf. That’s the reality, and the consequence of the denial of such a service is as long-term as any can be.

Speaking of abortion

24 Sep


Well, maybe we weren’t…But have you heard about the one about the right to an abortion in the UK?

I know, I know, abortions are permitted in the UK under the Abortion Act 1967 – I know. Although the Act might have been considered liberal at the time it was introduced, the law on abortion in the UK is starting to look a little shabby around the edges now. First point to note, the Abortion Act doesn’t apply to the whole of the UK. Abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland. Case law has recognised the exception to allow an abortion where necessary to protect the mother’s life or to prevent real and serious adverse effect to her physical and mental health. But otherwise it’s a criminal offence. Sentiments on this still run high, as noted by recent comments from the politician next in line for the post ofhealth minister that women who suffer a sexual assault must not be exempt from the strict laws banning abortion in Northern Ireland.

So, in England, Wales and Scotland then, under the Abortion Act before 24 weeks women do not have a “right” to an abortion. An abortion is permitted, but not a right, where continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family. Also, not one, but two registered medical practitioners have to sign off on. Extremely bureaucratically restrictive, as well as substantively restricting the right. As well, it’s different again in Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.

As this isn’t a right, acts outside this restrictive perimeter would be against the law and therefore illegal. And there’s a group of crimes on the statute book that you could be charged if you do try to end your pregnancy, such as sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act or the Infant Life (Preservation) 1929. These crimes are not a relic of statute long forgotten and never used. Granted, they aren’t used often, but when they are oh how they show what a cracked and warped regime it is. Last week, one woman was jailed for 8 years under section 58 of the OAPA. Eight years for taking drugs at 39 weeks pregnant to induce early labour. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding the judgement, not least the remarks of the judge, which are available here, as well as the extensive prison sentence handed down. Shan’t repeat them here, you can read them yourself. But do read them if you have the chance. His remarks do highlight the problems with the UK law as it stands: that by having an incomplete and qualified right to abortion under UK law and not reforming the criminal law so it is archaic with no recognition of the social and mental issues so clearly at play, women will be the subject of these out-dated and inappropriate views where they do not have a place. I’m still flabbergasted myself.

Although pregnant women in the UK cannot choose to subject their own bodies to a specific treatment in this respect, they do have the right to refuse treatment, recognised strongly in St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust v S [1998] 3 All ER 673 (CA):

Although human, and protected by the law in a number of different ways … an unborn child is not a separate person from its mother. Its need for medical assistance does not prevail over her rights. She is entitled not to be forced to submit to an invasion of her body against her will, whether her own life or that of her unborn child depends on it. Her right is not reduced or diminished merely because her decision to exercise it may appear morally repugnant.”

It’s also interesting to compare this to Sweden. There, women have a right to an abortion up to 18 weeks in the pregnancy, unless it would be a danger to the mother’s life. After 18 weeks, abortion is allowed only if permitted by Socialstyrelsen (the National Board of Health and Welfare). It can only be permitted if there are very strong reasons for an abortion and can’t if there is reason to believe the foetus could survive on its own. Socialstyrelsen guidance on this points to 22 weeks, but this is limit is not specified in the legislation. Before the end of the 18 weeks, if a doctor decides that an abortion would be a danger to the mother’s health, this decision must immediately be subjected to a decision by Socialstyrelsen. In practice, this mean the doctor doesn’t have the power to deny the woman’s right on their own; that decision is subject to a further decision by Socialstyrelsen which must be in agreement to deny the woman the right. At any time, if there is a serious danger to woman’s life and health, Socialstyrelsen can give permission regardless of how many weeks into the pregnancy. According to a government inquiry in 2005, a woman who has an illegal abortion cannot be criminally punished.

We could go on forever discussing the differences and best ways to legislate a woman’s right to an abortion. But really, is criminalising the mother the best way to deal with the fact that she resorted to such methods on her own physical person to end her pregnancy? Surely someone can see the gap here! But the very depressing thing is that with the state of UK politics at the moment, the law we have is probably the best we’ll see in a long time – the risk of trying to change it risks abandoning any right at all.

If you didn’t hear the one about abortion in the UK, it makes a mockery of women’s rights.

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