Can a Doctor Force Me to Have a C-Section?
Informed consent and informed refusal are Constitutional rights that courts have recognized for more than 100 years. A person’s right to control what happens to their body, including the right to decline recommended medical procedures, doesn’t end just because she is pregnant.
Yet over and over, we hear stories of women told they “have to” have c-sections. So what’s going on here?
The short answer is that doctors, hospital administrators, and hospital lawyers are taking advantage of women’s ignorance about their own rights. Except in very rare circumstances, a doctor absolutely cannot force you to have a c-section. In fact, doing so is almost always illegal. If your doctor is attempting to coerce you into a c-section, here are five things you need to know:
You Have a right to decline medical procedures
You have a right to say no to medical procedures a doctor or other provider thinks you should have. If a doctor tells you you have to have a c-section, you have the option to tell the doctor you will decline the procedure. You can also simply go to the hospital when you are in labor and decline the c-section then. The key here is to be clear and specific: “I am exercising my right to decline this procedure. I do not consent to a c-section.”
A doctor can try to convince you a c-section is best. He or she may threaten you or demean you, bully you or make you feel like a terrible mother. These tactics can make pregnancy difficult and stressful, but a doctor cannot physically force you to have a c-section.
A doctor or hospital can’t force a c-section without a court order
“A doctor cannot compel a woman to undergo a medical procedure without a court order,” said civil rights lawyer Jeff Filipovits.
Sometimes doctors tell women that a c-section is “hospital policy,” and that the woman must therefore have the surgery. Hospital policy does not trump the law. You have a right to decline recommended medical procedures even if the hospital’s policy says you can’t. Moreover, in almost all circumstances, the hospital must provide you with stabilizing treatment even if you don’t consent to a procedure the hospital or doctor recommends.
In very rare circumstances, such as when the baby’s life is in imminent danger or the hospital has reason to believe the woman does not have the intellectual capacity to consent to or decline medical procedures, the hospital may seek a court order to compel a c-section. A hospital cannot physically force a c-section without a court order. Even if the hospital threatens to seek a court order, they may not follow through on their threat, or they may lose their petition. But if you’re being threatened with a court-ordered c-section, you need a lawyer.
“A hospital can only seek to compel a c-section if there is evidence of medical neglect that endangers the life of the fetus,” said Filipovits. “Violating hospital policy alone is not enough for a court order.”
The circumstances in which a court can order a c-section are very limited
Georgia only allows court-ordered c-sections in very limited circumstances, when the hospital can show compelling evidence that the baby’s life is in imminent danger. Courts have heard very few cases on this issue. The most significant one was a 1981 case in which a woman was forced to undergo a c-section for placenta previa. This suggests that women with placenta issues might be forced to undergo c-sections. However, medicine has changed a lot since 1981, so it’s unclear if a court would still compel a c-section in such a case.
Doctors and hospitals have other ways of gaining compliance
The most common reason a woman is threatened with a c-section is that she has previously had a c-section. This alone is not medical indication for a c-section, and certainly does not put the life of the baby in danger. The odds of a hospital seeking and getting a court order in this situation are very small. Instead, hospitals are more likely to use threats and dishonesty to coerce a c-section. They may tell a woman she has to have a c-section, or threaten to involve DFCS.
In some cases, hospitals may even violate the law. Under federal law, hospitals are required to provide stabilizing treatment to women in labor. Yet many hospitals attempt to coerce surgery by refusing to admit or treat people in labor. One recent investigation found that Georgia hospitals are among the worst in the nation in terms of violating this law. Over 10 years, hospitals ignored the law more than 4,000 times.
This practice of breaking the law to gain compliance endangers families and babies. But it won’t end if birthing people don’t stand up for their rights. This is why we urge pregnant women to record their births and their conversations with their doctors. Learn more about recording your birth and why you should do it here.
You may need a lawyer
Hospitals that attempt to force c-sections can get a court order fairly quickly. Don’t waste time seeking help on message boards or trying to represent your own interests. A lawyer is your best shot at avoiding a medically unnecessary c-section. To find a lawyer, contact the State Bar of Georgia. The Georgia Birth Advocacy Coalition may also be able to help you find an attorney. Contact us here or at email@example.com. National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a national organization that specializes in the rights of birthing people, may also be able to help.