In the summer of 2013, a woman named Kelly gave birth at a California hospital. During her labor, Kelly was forced into having an episiotomy, as well as talked down to by her doctor. Despite the fact that evidence now suggests that routine episiotomies are not best practice, Kelly also did not give consent for the procedure, and yet her vagina was cut with scissors 12 times against her will. Now Kelly is fighting back and taking her case to court.
Kelly, a first-time mother, contacted advocacy group Improving Birth in hopes of getting her story out there and helping change things so other women don’t have to go through the same horrific experience. From a letter Kelly wrote to Improving Birth:
“Dr. A came into the room and after two pushes he had scissors in his hands and told the nurse that he was going to perform as episiotomy. I said why? … I pushed two more times and he was going to cut and I said ‘No, Don’t Cut Me.’ Then I said ‘why, why can’t we try?’ He said why you don’t go home and try or go to Kentucky! So then after he yelled at me he cut my Vagina twelve times. So before the episiotomy the nurse said it’s only going to be a little cut. A little cut turned into Dr. A’s horrific rage against me as a human being and against my will to begin with. I wanted to cry so badly and I was so horrified while he was cutting me (sic).”
Beyond her letter, Kelly actually had her entire experience caught on video (Trigger warning: The video is graphic and may be difficult for viewers who have experienced traumatic birth or sexual assault). It is evident that Kelly was not given any real information about the procedure but her right to say no was completely ignored. After attempting to work directly with the hospital to prevent this scenario from occurring again to no avail, Kelly and Improving Birth began figuring out a way to hold the hospital responsible for what happened.
Unfortunately, despite spending over a year looking for legal representation, Kelly has been unable to find anyone willing to take her case on. According to Improving Birth, “lawyer after lawyer after lawyer has said there is no case: not for malpractice, not for medical battery.” In addition, the California state medical board acknowledged receipt of Kelly’s complaint, but has yet to provide any answer as to what — if anything — they will do about it.
Why is Kelly, and her case, which is the epitome of medical violation, being ignored? The legal reasoning seems to be that since both Kelly and her child survived the birth, what happened during labor is irrelevant. How is that even possible? If this was any other sort of medical procedure, would it be dismissed as easily?
Dawn Thompson, founder and president of Improving Birth, explained to me the importance of Kelly’s case, noting that it goes beyond punitive damages: “Kelly’s goal has always been to prevent other women from experiencing what she did. We’ve heard from countless women all over the country and know that her experience isn’t unique. This lawsuit isn’t about money — it’s about accountability.”
Anyone can read Kelly’s own words and watch the video of her birth experience and understand how she could feel violated and traumatized. Completely ignoring and steamrolling over a woman during her own labor to the point Kelly experienced shouldn’t be normalized but rather called out for the injustice that it is. Women do not automatically lose bodily autonomy or rights just because they’re giving birth. Unfortunately, as Improving Birth has shown during their 2014 #BreakTheSilence campaign, Kelly is certainly not alone in her birth experience.
“This case is being supported by consumers who aren’t waiting around any longer for someone to address what women have been enduring for decades in American childbirth,” says Improving Birth’s Vice President Cristen Pascucci. “We’re asking people, especially women who have had any kind of non-consented procedure in birth, to pitch in and push Kelly’s case forward. She’s met the threshold to file her claim, but we’re looking at tens of thousands of dollars in expenses ahead. We would meet our goal easily if every woman in America who experienced a non-consented episiotomy in 2013 alone gave 50 cents.”