Bioethics Blogs

Birth, Trauma, and Autonomy

Sylvia Burrow discusses the inadequacy of care for women during labour and childbirth.


Health care providers are supposed to provide safe, compassionate, and ethical care for all patients. We see this idea represented in bioethical principles and values expressed in the Canadian Nursing Association Code of Ethics and the Canadian Medical Association Code of Ethics. Labouring and birthing women are noticeably vulnerable patients with intimately connected concerns for their emerging newborns. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that women seek medical facilities in order to receive the safe, compassionate, and ethical care that the Codes of Ethics of healthcare associations are intended to ensure. However, the reality is that women are routinely mistreated, disrespected, and neglected during labour and childbirth in hospital facilities. How are labouring and birthing women supposed to find safe and compassionate care in this environment? And what if they can’t find it?

I gave birth in a Canadian hospital that admitted a large number of high-risk labouring and birthing women. Shortly after the birth, I felt interrogated by the pediatrician. “Have you taken any drugs? What drugs did you take?” In my innocence I thought he was simply inquiring about my routine prescriptions. But in fact he was interested in getting an admission from me that I had used street drugs. This was almost incomprehensible to me. Of course I had never taken any street drugs, and I was quite willing to allow—indeed, did allow—tests to be run to prove it. In the next day or so the nursing staff barely visited the room.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.