Recently I’ve been caterwauling rather loudly about the medical establishment and its seemingly endless need to dictate to women what we should and shouldn’t do with our uteri. Now the judiciary’s teamed up with them, as described in the latest post from from Lisa Belkin’s excellent “Motherlode” blog on the New York Times website.
But now comes news that a New Jersey court has…ordered a child (identified in court papers as V.M.G.) to remain in foster care, where she has apparently been for two years, because her mother (V.M.) refused a C-section while in labor and demonstrated “combative and erratic behavior.”
Doctors thought the C-section was necessary; the laboring mother did not. As it turns out, she was right, because the baby was born vaginally, and healthy. But the court has upheld the original petition by the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (NJDYF) that by refusing the mother “abused and neglected” her child. (The court reversed similar charges against the father, B.G.)
Y’all, this is so obviously a big stinking bag of bullshit I’m surprised the court even heard it, much less upheld it. This woman did absolutely nothing wrong, legally or ethically. She’s being punished for not co-operating with her doctors when they decided–they, not her–how she should give birth, and this despite the fact that, as it turned out, she was right and they were wrong:
There are details in the court documents describing those other factors. In investigating the referral from the hospital, the NJDYF learned that “V.M. had been under psychiatric care for 12 years prior to V.M.G’s birth.” But the mother’s mental health was not the reason given for placing the child in foster care in the first place. The refusal of the C-section, and the behavior around the actual birth, were.
First of all, a history of psychiatric care isn’t in and of itself a reason to take a child away from its mother: we all know perfectly sane, competent people who have been under long-term psychiatric care. The court clearly understands this, and is punishing her for her sane decision not to have a c-section. As for combative and erratic–I’d be pretty fucking combative and erratic too if I were in labor and doctors were trying to strong-arm me into having unwanted, invasive major abdominal surgery.
V.M. was an adult, conscious and legally sane. She had the absolute right to make medical decisions for herself. Even if she had been treated for mental illness, Rennie v. Klein—a case decided in the Federal District Court of New Jersey, the same state where this occurred—established that even an involuntarily committed mental patient has the right to refuse treatment unless they were legally non compos mentis (which V. M. absolutely was not). In the Rennie case, the plaintiff’s right to refuse medication was upheld. In V.M’s case, she chose to refuse surgery. So having exercised her civil right and with no harm done, why the hell is the state of New Jersey punishing her and her child? Unless the judge knows something that wasn’t made public, there’s no child abuse here. At all.
Did the mother take a risk in refusing the treatment? Perhaps. But the doctor treats a pregnant woman, not her fetus. He must respect her right to veto surgery if she so chooses–her being pregnant does not change that right. It’s also worth noting that–according to a watchdog group cited by one of the commenters from Belkin’s article– the hospital where this incident occurred has a 43.9% Caesarean rate, which is extremely high, even when compared to the high rate of c-sections nationally (in 2006, the c-section rate was 31% of live births in the US. The World Health Organization recommends that the rate of c-section births not exceed about 15% in any country.) Unless they exclusively handle high-risk pregnancies, it’s safe to assume that doctors at this hospital frequently opt to cut women open even when they could safely deliver vaginally. If they do this as a matter of course, it’s no wonder some women are going to say no.
I’m troubled by the rate of unnecessary Caesareans in this country–they’re a product of soaring malpractice costs and fear of litigation–but I believe a woman has the right to have an elective c-section if she chooses. She also has the right to refuse one. When a doctor tells a woman she needs a Caesarean, most women would agree unquestioningly. We nearly always default to trusting our doctors to make decisions in our best interests. But doctors are not God. We are legally and morally entitled to disagree with them, including when it comes to decisions about our reproductive systems and our unborn children. Or so we thought. Apparently in New Jersey exercising that right makes you a child abuser and gives the state the right to take that child from you.