In the realm of human rights, you may not think of childbirth as a pressing concern. Agnes Gereb is a midwife in Hungary who has been jailed repeatedly for violating Hungarian law by attending births. Despite her credentials—she’s a former registered obstetrician—she is seen as a rebel for her advocacy in women’s choices surrounding childbirth.
With the help of one of her former patients, Anna Ternovksy, Gereb’s work was validated by the courts. Ternovsky asserted that her human rights were violated because the Hungarian authorities dictated where and with whom she had to give birth. Ternovsky took the country of Hungary to the European Court of Human Rights. And won.
The story of Gereb and Ternovsky is the central theme of the documentary Freedom For Birth, which is premiering today worldwide in over 1000 showings. I attended a showing here in Austin, an event which benefited Giving Austin Labor Support (GALS), a charity that provides volunteer doulas to any woman in Austin who requests one. The documentary promotes the importance of choice in maternity care and childbirth for all women, articulating the importance of changing the way we think of these issues from women’s issues to human rights issues.
Most importantly, I believe that Freedom for Birth articulates some of the birth-advocacy arguments in a new and constructive way. As a mother who has birthed all three of her children with midwifery guidance, I think that it is significant that the discussion in the film is about personal choice rather than promoting a midwifery-only or homebirth-only agenda. By looking at maternity care and childbirth as a human rights issue, we can start to think about what is best for women and children—both on a general and individual level. If women are given the authority to make decisions for themselves (which is, in essence, what Turnovsky vs. Hungary protects), each woman’s health history and personal preference—along with input from her health care provider– guides her choice. She is not at the mercy of a healthcare system that may or may not be in alignment with her personal best practice.
This is not a simple change to enact. The documentary refers to it as nothing less than a revolution. Bringing about choice in childbirth will require changing a system that is not mother/baby-friendly. But to do so means that we are thinking about maternity care as a human rights issue instead of an industry. I think that’s a change worth fighting for.