Consent: The Crucial Concept Missing from Women's Health
The understanding that we have a right to bodily autonomy is a crucial one for our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wellness. Thanks to women being more vocal as to their experiences and the #MeToo movement, conversations around consent have been raised more than ever before. However, when hearing the word "consent", most of us think of this term as asking and receiving (or not) permission to touch someone else's body for sexual reasons. This concept goes beyond sexual acts and there's an area in great need for raised awareness... women's health.
"Is it okay if I measure baby now?" my midwife asked, waiting for my permission before doing so. She then did something that brought tears to my eyes. Not only was she speaking to me as she began to palpate my growing belly, but she introduced herself to our baby growing within and talked to him as she did so. I felt strong emotions rise and a sigh of relief and gratitude leave me to have my own body respected and honored, as well as that of our babe.
This memory was brought to mind recently when discussing with a friend the topic of consent in women's health... and the lack thereof. She'd recently had an experience requiring medical help. She described already feeling intense stress and anxiety before a provider did something that heightened it even further.
"At one point the doctor left the room to get another doctor and left the door open with my vulnerable body in the spotlight."
Stories of women feeling unsafe or disrespected within the medical community are numerous and disturbing, especially surrounding reproductive health, pregnancy, and childbirth. From the simple act of medical professionals telling a patient what they'll be doing next rather than asking for consent, pressuring women into unnecessary (non-emergency) procedures without allowing time for consideration, and abuse of power, we need to see more positive change in this area of health and wellness.
Women are still being pressured into inductions out of convenience for the doctor. Scheduled c-sections out of fear rather than understanding. Given episiotomies without receiving permission to do so. Scheduled labs and tests without explanation as to why or for what purpose. Forbidden from eating in early labor, before the intense workout of giving birth. Not trusted to birth in instinctual positions. Dismissed with condescension when unable to uncover the problem, despite the patient knowing something is truly wrong. The list goes on. We are told we must adhere to the guidelines that are in place not to protect and respect a woman and her body, but to prevent any potential liability toward the hospital or clinic. We are taught to accept what negates our intuition because "this is how it's done". We are prescribed a "band-aid" rather than taking the time to get to the root of the issue and connecting with the human experiencing it.
Comparing my two drastically different pregnancy and birthing experiences reiterates the value of this concept. I was unaware it could be any different. I didn't know what I didn't know. I did not know that I had a right to advocate for myself and how I envisioned my experience to be. I believed myself to be doing so, yet understand now how little I was given space and guidance to follow my intuition. When our medical system is run as a for profit business with a pharmaceutical business partner and care providers must spend more time completing paperwork than connecting, it can be hard to trust that patient-centered care truly means patient-centered.
I like to believe that most providers are genuinely doing their best to care for women in a kind and compassionate way. I know many professionals within the medical community with hearts of gold that I would be grateful to receive care from. Yet if the methods they were taught involve guidelines that contradict a patient's feelings, intuition, and holistic wellness... this can lead to unnecessary trauma.
It is time to find a balance between the logical problem-solving mentality and the need for a autonomy- respecting approach that views the patient as more than just a body on a table. And how do we close this gap?
Empathy & Empowerment.
Providers must be as well versed in empathy and compassion as they are medical terminology. Patients must be empowered to understand their own bodies and feel capable of healing. We must seek healthcare knowing we will be treated as an equal, a human speaking with another human and seeking support. For the more we are taught about our bodies and guided to trust the signs they show us, the greater our sense of true wellness will be. After all,
“One doesn't have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient.” - Charles M. Blow