Looking back on the birth of your child can stir up a whole mess of emotions. If everything went off swimmingly, with baby gliding out of your birth canal and into your postpartum depression-free arms for a full night of sleep, there probably isn't much you wish had gone differently. Also, you probably don't exist.
For a great many women, the memory of childbirth is complex. It can be bittersweet, particularly if there were complications that caused an injury or an emergency trip to the operating room. Then there are the women who can't bear to reflect on the day their child was born because it means revisiting a physical and psychological trauma. Now one of those moms — an Alabama woman named Caroline Malatesta — has sued the people responsible for her nightmare birth and collected $16 million in the process.
It's no surprise that the dollar amount you see there has raised more than a few hackles. After all, that's a whole lot of money, and we're always naturally suspicious of people who decide to sue, no matter how justified they are. But let's take a look at why Malatesta did what she did.
Pregnant with her fourth child at 32, Malatesta, like many women, hospital-shopped until she found a place that promised her that she would be in control of her birth — Brookwood Women's Center. It is affiliated with Brookwood Baptist Medical Center and promises women a "personalized birth." They market themselves as being woman-focused and use phrases like "Your Birth, Your Way," and that was why Malatesta said she ultimately chose the center.
So she was obviously shocked and dismayed traumatized when instead of a calm, empowering birth, she was instead restrained during active labor and had her son's head held inside her for six minutes after he initially crowned. It left her with a serious and extremely painful condition: pudendal neuralgia, which affects a nerve that runs through the pelvis. Malatesta told a local news outlet that she felt the entire experience felt like a bait and switch, and the jury agreed. It found the birth center to be "in violation of the standard of care for labor and delivery nurses" and categorized Brookwood's marketing to be a "reckless misrepresentation of fact," validating Malatesta's complaint, with the total damages owed to her and her husband assessed at $16 million.
Still, people are crying foul.
The general gripe appears to be along the lines of "birth is messy, birth is painful, if everyone with a crappy birth experience got 16 big ones for it, we'd all be bankrupt." This is a really misinformed and kind of dangerous way to think about the whole situation.
Yes, birth is messy. Yes, birth can be painful. Very painful. Every birth is different, but all of them have that in common. The physical and mental fortitude required to have a baby is immense. But there is a vast chasm between a painful childbirth with unexpected hiccups and the 1.5 percent of childbirths that are considered to leave women with childbirth-related post-traumatic stress disorders. That kind of trauma is real, and it is lasting. It isn't a painful birth or even a complicated or emergency birth situation.
It's a hellacious one that affects a woman's quality of life in a way so negative as to be debilitating.
As far as the money goes, Malatesta herself said that she'd hoped the hospital would have just worked with her. She didn't relish the idea of litigation or, as far as we can tell, see an easy payday. But this is the outlet that we're afforded to hold people accountable for things like traumatic birth and to ensure that they won't do it again. It's unfortunate that entities won't act unless they stand to lose a lot of money, but that's the way things are, and Malatesta certainly didn't owe the hospital any kind of altruistic free pass. At the very least, the financial hit and negative publicity might keep this from happening to another woman.
Traumatic childbirth is not normal. It's ridiculous to tell women that it is and that they should be prepared for it as a fact of life and shut up about it if it happens to them. Nor should we tell women that medical staff are only doing what's best for them when the evidence in cases like this so clearly points to the opposite. We have not perfected safe childbirth in even the most generous sense of the word — in a country that boasts cutting-edge health care, it's ridiculous that in 2016 our maternal mortality rate is climbing. More women die giving birth in America than in every single other developed country.
If that's true, who knows at what rate trauma during delivery is climbing? How can we know when women like Malatesta say that it's real and that it happened to them, and we tell them to shut up and just be glad she's alive?
If, in spite of all this, we can look at Malatesta's birth and case and conclude that she's just overreacting, then we have a huge problem. Cases like this one should shock and anger us, but not because of a dollar amount. If this type of trauma and fallout look normal to us, then Malatesta isn't the problem. We are.
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