Undue Burden and Access to Evidence-Based Maternity Care

I’ve been reading Jennifer Block’s Pushed and really enjoying what a journalist can bring to childbirth advocacy.  I’ve learned many new things - what a nice surprise.  It’s not that I’ve learned everything there is to know about childbirth, but I think I got “stuck” in reading books that basically said the same thing but in different ways.

A new term for me is “undue burden.”  Wikipedia’s definition falls short, in my opinion, but between Block’s discussion of it and other internet sources, I’ve come to understand it better (at least from a layperson’s perspective) and how it might apply to a LOT of women in the childbearing years.

I’ve learned that undue burden has been applied to reproductive rights issues, specifically abortion.  However, I don’t think we advocates have worked this “angle” enough in terms of childbirth choices.  Abortion rights activists have advocated for “morally agnostic undue burden standard[s]” [1]  Likewise, I would call for an “agnostic” undue burden standard applied to childbirth.

The undue burden standard is utilized in American constitutional law and historically has been applied in such areas as abortion rights, affirmative action, tax laws, and more.  The Supreme Court applied this concept to abortion, ruling that a state can’t put up so many obstacles to abortion procedures that a woman’s individual rights are violated.  [2] An undue burden is created when obstacles are severe and/or not justified.

Do you see where I’m going with this?  I feel like I am a victim of undue burden.  I have no reason to believe that I can’t successfully birth my twins naturally.  But the state has deemed that my preference of birth venue is not valid – women with breech babies or multiples are not allowed to birth at home with a licensed midwife.  My choices are to (1) birth unassisted at home, (2) go to the hospital against my will, or (3) enlist the services of an illegal midwife.  Additionally, the only services that would be covered by my insurance are hospital services.

In most states women with breech babies have no choice but to go to the hospital for a cesarean section even though breech presentation has traditionally been referred to as a version of normal.  We’ve lost access to vaginal breech birth.

In most locations women with multiples are pressured to succumb to cesarean surgery.  A number of folks have voiced their concern for my choice to birth these babies vaginally.  They simply don’t know any better.  Luckily I have found an obstetrician who is not afraid of normal birth.  However, I realize now that he may not be there for me when it comes time to go to the hospital.  He takes a week of vacation each month of the summer and is out of town twice next month, my birth month.  I found this out accidentally from his reception staff.

It is possible that I will show up at the hospital and some OB whom I’ve never met will show up and start pressuring me into surgery or ignore (or at least be unaware) of my birth preferences.  So because the state has deemed that twins should not be birthed at home, and because my insurance company won’t cover home birth anyway, I can either “choose” to go to a hospital that doesn’t practice evidence-based obstetrics or go eff myself, I guess.

Isn’t this an example of undue burden?  Lack of access to the care of my choice?  Paying for health care that doesn’t support evidence-based maternity care and forces me to go to a specific hospital in my town with a high cesarean rate and low VBAC rate?  Unjustifiably restricting scope of practice for midwives?  Not offering alternatives/access to the type of care I require?

I don’t want to be a patient.  I don’t see any need to expose myself or my newborns to the hospital environment.  Even my 4 year old doesn’t understand why I would go to the hospital to have babies.  “Mommy, are you sick?”

Don’t get me wrong, if I or the twins needed emergency medical services, you bet we’d go to the hospital.  I’m thankful to have access to obstetrics when necessary, but I resent being forced to utilize services that go against common sense, research, and are expensive and wasteful as applied to the great majority of laboring women.

I hope natural birth advocates, women’s studies researchers and writers, and lawyers will work together to expand application of the undue burden standard to the women who don’t have access to ethical, evidence-based care in childbirth, and are forced instead to incur great expenses to access the care they desire, to hire “illegal” or “under the radar” practitioners, to utilize unwanted services and support the over-payment of those services, or to go at it alone.

Please, give me back my right to birth.  Give me back my body.

1 – “Destacking the cards…,” Gender & Sexuality Law Blog, accessed 7/18/09.
2 – Jennifer Block.  Pushed. p.262.