Guest post by Gemma McKenzie
“[T]hey just wanted me to be a faceless person, who would lie down and let them do what they wanted me to do… I feel like our whole system feeds into us being obedient, submissive, good girls, and other people taking what’s rightfully ours…”
These are the words of an interviewee from my recent study on freebirthing in the UK. I had interviewed sixteen women about their experiences of intentionally giving birth without doctors or midwives present. These were not stories of fast labours and failed attempts to get to the hospital in time; these were accounts of women making an atypical – yet entirely legal – birthing decision, often under very difficult circumstances.
For some time, I had been volunteering for AIMS, a charity promoting women’s human rights in pregnancy and childbirth. I was therefore well versed in the ways in which women’s rights could be eroded within the UK maternity services. However, nothing prepared me for the testimony women gave about being subjected to non-consensual vaginal examinations, episiotomies (cutting of the perineum) and membrane rupturing (breaking of the waters). Alongside these were accounts of bullying by health care providers as staff attempted to coerce and manipulate women into complying with hospital policy. Such abuse is known as obstetric violence, a taboo phenomenon that has only recently become the subject of serious academic study.
Like all medical treatment, maternity care is voluntary and optional. Yet this seemed to have been usurped by social norms around how pregnant women should act and the presumption that they should follow ‘doctor’s orders.’ I wanted a unique way to portray this paradox, the accounts of interviewees, and also women’s rights in pregnancy and childbirth. Wellcome, the Economic and Social Research Council and King’s College London provided me with a small grant to do so.
Graphic zines have a long feminist history and provide an opportunity for marginalised voices to speak out. In 90s’ grrl zine circles, zines were a rebellious, underground way to share ideas outside of the mainstream. A zine would therefore be the perfect vehicle for my message. With the support of AIMS, the talents of artist Michelle Freeman, and the wisdom of birth activists Emma Ashworth, Anne Glover and Alice Spencer, we created a zine which captures the essence of the issues women face within maternity care.
Given the intimate and abusive accounts interviewees often recalled, it would have been difficult to demonstrate these graphically without the images becoming inappropriate. We therefore needed to get around this by capturing the essence of the violations. For example, Michelle’s clever interpretation of a woman in a specimen jar emphasises the ways in which women may be dehumanised without relying on a crude depiction of the actual abuse. Further, for the zine to be palatable and accessible to health care providers, we wanted our message to contain positivity. We therefore framed our wording around the promotion of rights as opposed to the depiction of abuses. This also enabled us to avoid presenting women as victims.
At present the zine is available electronically. However, we aim to return to zines’ feminist roots by creating hard copy versions. Our goal is to create free copies for women to read and share and to encourage people to leave them in spaces accessed by pregnant women. Ultimately, we want to contribute to the conversation around consent, autonomy, bodily integrity and women’s right to say ‘no’ and ‘stop.’ We hope our graphic zine will be one way to do that.
An e-book of the zine can be accessed here.
A short video of the zine can be found here.
For more information on The Freebirth Study see www.gemmamckenzie.co.uk