For black mothers, the need for support during birth is even greater. Black women are 2.5 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women—at least in part because of institutional racism.
When I think about my son's birth, I mostly remember drifting between this world and the next. For huge chunks of the 32 hours I was in labor I felt like I was literally out of my mind, completely focused on my body as I experienced wave after wave of pressure. My husband and birth team massaged my back, encouraged me to drink water and cared for me while my body was at work.
Looking back now, I can't imagine being asked to make decisions about my safety or that of my baby while I was in that state. I certainly couldn't imagine doing it all alone, without my partner or someone to support me.
In an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, this is what several hospitals are asking of their patients. On March 20th, a doula named Jessica Pournaras in New York City started a petition asking several New York hospitals to stop banning partners from accompanying people in labor. One week later, the petition had over 600,000 signers, countless media hits and progress—New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had issued a directive requiring hospitals to allow one support person per pregnant patient.
Birth is an incredibly vulnerable state, and many of us are forced to give up a lot of power and dignity when we go through it—particularly women of color. But parents across the country know in their hearts that no one should be forced through such an intense and emotional experience without support, not even in because of the coronavirus.
Support during labor isn't just about some romanticized image of birth. Partners or support people can be present throughout labor and birth in a way that hospital staff couldn't on a normal day, much less in the middle of a pandemic. Partners can provide help with pain relief for the pregnant person, advocate for them and catch red flags to call for help sooner than nurses might.
Without this continuous support, patients are more likely to have longer labors and to require pain medications, forceps or vacuum-assisted births— possibly even increased chances of cesarean sections. A 2017 Cochrane review found that a support person can decrease the chances of a C-section by 25% relative to people without support; having a doula present decreased it by as much as 39%.
For black mothers, the need for support during birth is even greater. Black women are 2.5 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women—at least in part because of institutional racism. Take Kira Johnson, who died after what appeared to be a routine C-section. Her husband spent hours trying to get the attention of medical staff only to be told "Sir, your wife just isn't a priority right now." Kira was left to bleed internally for 10 hours.
Kira had her partner with her, and she was still ignored and mistreated. Now imagine the black, low-income or non-English speaking women who could be forced to give birth completely alone, left in the hands of overworked hospital staff. We should expect many more traumatic births, more C-sections and more deaths.
Most hospitals are now restricting pregnant patients to one support person, a compromise which seems fair given the virus we are fighting. But even after New York's statewide order, a steady trickle of hospitals across the country are beginning to ban all support persons for pregnant people. Others are allowing people to enter the hospital only when their partner is pushing or are forcing them to leave immediately after, leaving birth parents alone to heal and care for their newborn.
This asks pregnant people to sacrifice their safety and the well-being of their babies instead of implementing the myriad other solutions that have been offered. For example, partners could be screened for COVID-19 symptoms, restricted to only one room and asked to wear a mask at all times. Hospitals could support and expand birth services outside of hospital grounds, such as at birthing centers and home births.
Since Jessica won her campaign in New York, dozens more petitions have sprung up asking other state governors to require hospitals to allow birth support partners. A petition to Pennsylvania's Governor Wolf has 18,000 signatures, 13,000 people are demanding the same for Ohioans and five petitions have been started in California alone. These parents understand that abandoning people in labor is not how we keep families safe, and they are passionately fighting for safe births across the country.
For too long, people in labor—particularly black and marginalized women—have been denied agency and dignity in how they give birth. We are all scared, but as one petition commenter wrote, "Human rights and dignity cannot end in an epidemic." We must come together to protect new lives, and demand dignity for the people who bring them forward.
After my son was born, we practiced nursing, I finally managed to keep some food down (chocolate was my best medicine) and my midwife monitored me for signs of abnormal bleeding. But mostly, my partner and I gazed at the little human who had finally joined us. And within a few hours, our doula and midwives faded away, leaving us alone with our baby. Alone, but together.
Everyone had a role to play that day, and everyone had worked hard to keep me and my son safe. I'm so grateful to each and every person who was in the room with us that monumental day—and I simply want the same protection for all mothers.
(*Please note: It is important to check in with your medical provider on the latest rules and regulations surrounding hospital births during the COVID-19 outbreak.)