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Obstetric Violence: How It’s Defined and How We Face It

In a recent, tragic case, a newborn died from being crushed by its mother, who fell asleep from the fatigue of numerous hours of labor. The case has brought the issue of obstetric violence (OV) to the attention of the Italian media. OV is defined as neglect, physical abuse, or disrespect during childbirth, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO outlined fundamental actions to be taken at various levels for its prevention, especially by healthcare systems, in a 2014 position paper.

Gender-Based Abuse

Considered a form of gender-based abuse, OV was first described in Latin America in the early 2000s. It is widespread and is increasing in European countries.

From the scientific literature on the subject, OB seems to be strongly associated with a lack of communication between healthcare personnel and pregnant women. It appears to have more to do with authoritarian and paternalistic behavior than actual real-life medical issues. Actively involving women in decision-making regarding childbirth and postpartum care seems to reduce the incidence of OV. Pregnant women who are more involved appear to trust healthcare professionals more and are therefore less likely to report disrespectful and abusive behavior.

Estimates of the prevalence of OV vary, depending on the country, the childbirth facility, and its definition. In Italy, inspired by the web campaign “#Bastatacere: le madri hanno voce [#EnoughSilence: mothers have a voice],” in 2017, the Obstetric Violence Database (OVO) investigated perceptions of having been a victim of OV in a representative sample of Italian women aged 18 to 54 years who had at least one child.

In 2017, just over 20% of the women interviewed considered themselves victims of OV; 33% felt they had not received adequate care; and around 35% reported serious problems concerning privacy or trust. Following the treatment received, approximately 15% of the women decided not to return to the same healthcare facility, and 6% did not want to proceed with further pregnancies.

At the time of publication, the results sparked a debate among relevant medical associations (the Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Italian Hospitals, the Italian Society of Gynecology and Obstetrics [SIGO], and the Association of Italian University Gynecologists), which immediately recognized the importance of the topic and accepted an invitation for further discussion on physician-patient relationships. They expressed reservations concerning the methodologies used by the OVO for data collection, especially regarding the representativeness of the sample.

Lack of Communication

“In general, women who claim to have suffered from obstetric violence do not do so because they have been denied an aspect of care but because they have had an overall experience that, for whatever reason, did not conform with their expectations,” said Irene Cetin, full professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Milan and director of the obstetrics and gynecology unit of the Buzzi Hospital in Milan. “Following the OVO’s exposĂ©, SIGO also conducted a large-scale study throughout Italy on all women who had given birth within a 3-month period. That investigation painted a very different picture. It wasn’t the case that no instances of obstetric violence were found, but the results were more contained. This is a very delicate subject, given that every report that we receive in hospital is always valued and looked into in detail, and women come to speak to us about errors and things that were missed.”

She added, “Experience leads me to say that complaints about what happens in the delivery room are extremely rare. What we hear more of, but still not often, are problems experienced during days spent in hospital immediately after childbirth.” There are never enough resources, which is the reason behind most problems. “The real hardships are found in the wards,” continued Cetin, “where the midwife-to-bed ratio is one or two to thirty, and therefore this is where it is more difficult to feel like you’re being listened to. With COVID-19, the situation has gotten even worse, even though in my hospital we have always guaranteed, not without struggle, the presence of the partner in the delivery room.”

Only relatively recently have women’s partners been allowed into the hospital. In addition, a number of services, such as having the right beds and giving the correct explanations and information on how to establish a relationship with the child, are now being offered. These steps are necessary to guarantee what is referred to as a “humanizing birth,” a process in which the woman is at the center of the experience and is the main protagonist of the birth.

Lack of Resources

This trend also is observed at the systemic level, where there is a lack of organization and resources. Few staff members are in the ward, even fewer specialists are in the psychological field, and contact is almost nonexistent after discharge from many hospitals and in many regions across Italy. There are, however, some positive aspects and hope for the future. “Just think,” said Cetin, “of how degree courses in obstetrics have changed over time, with a large part of teaching and training now being centered around the emotional aspects of birth.” From the gynecologist’s side, “most of the problems have been inherited from the past,” said Cetin. “Let’s not forget that we have only recently been giving birth in hospital. The so-called medicalization of childbirth has been responsible for a decline in the death rate and morbidity rate of pregnant women, but initially, there was little interest or care in how women felt in this situation, including with regard to physical pain. Since the 1970s, with Leboyer from France and Miraglia from Italy [promoters of so-called sweet birth], a path was cleared for a different line of thought. For this reason, I believe that the situation will improve over time.

“To continuously improve physician-patient communication,” concluded Cetin, “it would perhaps be appropriate to make sure that, even in the preparatory phase, women are well aware of possible complications and of the necessary and rapid emergency procedures that must be implemented by healthcare personnel. This way, a trusting relationship could be maintained, and the perception of having suffered abuse due to not being involved in strictly medical decisions could be stemmed.”

This article was translated from Univadis Italy.

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