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Obstetric Violence & the Police

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Obstetric Violence Support Pamphlet

Reporting Obstetric Violence to Police

Mental Health Support Services:

Dr Heather Mattner Perinatal Psychology Services

heathermattnerpsychologist@gmail.com

South Australia-Video Conference Nation Wide-Offers Medicare Rebate

 

Amy Mcalpine-Clinical and Forensic Psychology Services

Wise Perinatal Services

Western Australia-Offers Medicare Rebate

 

Lucy Frankham Perinatal Psychology Services

Lucy Frankham | Psychologist Ballina - Centre for Perinatal Psychology

New South Wales 


Sarah Harrower Perinatal Psychology Services

Mothers | Sarah Harrower Psychology | Australia

Western Australia

 

Phillipa Scott-Trauma and Birth Debrief Therapy Services

Birth Debrief — Birth Trauma Specialists - Healing and Support for New Mothers. (fantasticfuture.com.au)

Sexual Assault Resources:

Police contacts for sexual assault | Australian Human Rights Commission

Women’s Legal Services Australia – The National Voice of Women’s Legal Services (wlsa.org.au)

Australian Sexual Assault Directory of Support Services — NASASV

Reporting Obstetric Violence to Police

 

Most women report their injustices with their maternity care to a regulatory authority such as Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency or the Health Care Complaints Commission or Health Ombudsman. For women who have the means to do so, they pursue justice through the civil courts.  Serious abuse in maternity care known as ‘obstetric violence’ can also be considered a criminal offence. 

Obstetric violence as defined by the United Nations is "A form of gender- based violence, exercised by those in charge of health care for pregnant women accessing services during pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum.”

You have the right to report obstetric violence to the police. While Australia doesn’t have specific obstetric violence laws, we do have laws on assault, sexual violence, bodily harm, torture and criminal negligence.

Many women are not sure if they can report obstetric violence to police because there is a social/cultural myth that medical providers can perform procedures on women during medical emergencies or override women’s decisions when they don’t agree with them or not seek consent at all. In most civil case law, for women who have capacity, providers cannot make those decisions. 

Women maintain their bodily autonomy even in an emergency. It is illegal to assault patients when those patients make decisions that are against medical advice. Pregnancy is no exception. 

Medical providers do not have any special status under the law to assault/interfere with  women due to their degree, title, profession or being located in a hospital. They are subject to the same laws as all Australians. They legally cannot prioritise the wellbeing of a fetus above a woman’s bodily autonomy. 

What are some examples of obstetric violence that can be reported to the police?

All procedures involving a woman’s genitals that are done without informed and noncoerced consent can be reported to the state/territory police sexual violence unit:

  • Forced Vaginal/ Anal examinations (sexual violence)

  • Forced Episiotomy (sexual violence) 

  • Forced operative vaginal birth (e.g. being held/tied down against your will for forceps-sexual violence)

Other forms of assault can be reported to a general police officer:

  • Forced caesarean section 

  • Being locked up in hospital against your will (deprivation of liberty). 

  • Being slapped, pinched or held/tied down to a bed by a medical/health care professional

 

How do I make a police report?

A police report should be done as soon as possible however they do require some evidence. Any witnesses to the assault such as your partner or a doula should document any obstetric violence and also make a police statement. 

A doula or any other birth support or other health professional can report a medical sexual violence/physical assault on your behalf with your consent to start the inquiry process. 

The police will make contact, give you a form to fill out and require your identification before requesting a statement. 

It would be very helpful if in most obstetric violence situations your birth support person has documentation of any assault. Doulas can document such obstetric violence in their business records. It is rare for medical providers who witnessed violence in birth settings to document or testify to assault, but if they have done so, this can also be used as evidence. 

It is up to the police if they decide to investigate or lay charges. You may seek independent legal advice to help on this issue.

Some states/territories allow organisations/individuals to make complaints of sexual violence online.  Maternity Consumer Network can do this with you at your request to start the process if you have been assaulted by your maternity care provider for the purposes of being an advocate. 

It is your right to have a support person with you when you make your report. Sometimes police may not be receptive to your complaint so in this case you can ask to speak to a different officer or seek an advocacy organisation or legal advice to help in this situation. 

 

Understanding criminal investigations

The criminal justice system requires a high standard of evidence in order to proceed to court and even more to successfully get a conviction.  Going to court is no guarantee there will be a conviction. Criminal court requires evidence ‘beyond all reasonable doubt,’ and this usually requires the prosecution to show evidence of this standard to a jury or a Judge. 

The prosecutor decides whether to lay charges and weighs up a lot of factors before proceeding. It is currently extremely difficult to not only supply evidence of criminal behaviour in medical settings, but also for police and the prosecution to see obstetric violence as a crime. 

Going through a criminal trial can be very traumatic and mentally taxing for women with a strong chance there may be no conviction. So it is important women are  aware of this. However we do not want women to think the reporting of obstetric violence to police is in vain. It is important to report obstetric crimes to police so they can establish a pattern of behaviour and start to view it as a criminal act. The commencement of this process may also be a deterrent for perpetrators. 

You have the right to make a report even if the police choose not to investigate. 

We encourage women to make police reports before going through a complaint to the regulatory authority as unfortunately most health regulators such as the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra) or the NSW Health Care Complaint Commission fail to refer concerning providers to the police and in our experience, fail to uphold informed consent as per their own policies and guidelines. Reporting to the police helps ensure a concerning provider is on the police radar and makes it harder for health regulators to cover up, excuse and hide violent and abusive individuals in maternity care.

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