What to do if You’re in Labor Now and Being Mistreated


Childbirth can be many things—transformative, frightening, meaningful, even traumatic. One thing it should never be is abusive. No matter what type of birth you have chosen, no matter why you prefer the birth options you do, you have a right to compassionate care, supportive treatment, and respect for your right to make decisions.

If you are in labor right now and facing mistreatment, here are some tips to get through it.

Don’t let providers take advantage of your fear and stress

Making decisions during labor is difficult even in the best circumstances. You’re in pain, surrounded by people you don’t know, and probably concerned about your baby. Hospitals and providers know this. So when they recommend something you don’t want, they often use your fear and pain to their own advantage. Be mindful of this as you make decisions and ask questions. It is difficult, stressful, and overwhelming to assert your wishes under duress. But you can do it.

Know also that one of the best protections you can have is a thoughtful, assertive birth partner who will advocate for you even under pressure. A loving spouse or parent is a great ally. So too is a doula. Ask them to argue on your behalf as much as possible, so you can focus on birthing.

Record everything

Georgia is a single-party recording state. This means that you have a right to record any conversation you are present for. That includes conversations in a hospital or with a doctor. So turn on your phone, put it somewhere where it can easily pick up sound, and record everything. This documentation may be the only evidence you have if you eventually file a complaint with a medical review board or file a lawsuit.

Don’t take legal advice from a doctor or hospital

Doctors and administrators who tell you what you can or cannot do are not giving you medical advice. They’re giving you legal advice. And they’re not qualified to do so. Don’t take legal advice from a doctor or hospital. And don’t take legal advice from a hospital lawyer, either. Their job is to represent the interests of the hospital—not inform you of your rights.

Remain calm

It’s hard to remain calm even when birth is going exactly as you want it to. It’s nearly impossible when you’re being mistreated or pressured into interventions you don’t want. Unfair as it is, emotional reactions can be used against you. Don’t get aggressive or threatening. Don’t allow them to see you panicking. Remain calm and assertive. Consider that a medical review board, jury, or hospital administrator may eventually review the report of what happened—or even hear an audio recording. Try to be the calmest, most rational person in the room.

Use legal and medical terms

Emotional pleas and meandering arguments will not work to your advantage when you’re facing coercion or abuse. Instead, you need to use legal and medical terms. Particularly if you are recording everything, this creates a clear record that can later support any complaint you might file.

Some language to use includes:

  • I do not consent to that procedure.

  • What are the alternatives to this procedure?

  • I am exercising my right to decline that procedure.

  • I need to consent to any and all medication, and to all exams.

  • I am entitled to stabilizing treatment even if I decline some recommended care.

Another helpful strategy is to repeat back to the doctor what they are saying to you:

  • So if I understand correctly, you are going to deny me all treatment if I do not comply with your wishes?

  • Are you saying that you plan to force me to undergo treatment I do not consent to?

  • Are you asserting that a healthy birth environment includes a doctor mocking me?

  • Are you telling me I no longer have a right to informed consent?

Phrasing abusive recommendations in terms of consent may cause some providers to backpedal. It also alerts them to the fact that you understand your rights and will not easily be pushed around.

Ask for a few minutes to think

Pressure from doctors, nurses, and administrators can feel like an onslaught. Get a break to clear your head by asking for a few minutes alone to think. This allows you and your support team to formulate a plan, and gives you the chance to critically assess your options without the intrusion of an abusive provider.

Ask for a second opinion

If your provider is recommending a procedure you don’t want or refusing to provide you with care you think you need, ask for a second opinion. Not only does this ensure you get competent care; it also offers relief from abuse.

Fire your provider

Your provider works for you—even if you’re dealing with a hospital doctor whom you didn’t hire. You always have the right to request a different provider. Similarly, if a specific nurse is being unkind or not honoring your wishes, tell the nurse you don’t want to work with them anymore and request a replacement.

Ask to speak to a patient advocate

Most hospitals have a staff patient advocate or social worker who helps mediate disputes and advocate for patient wishes. Some are better than others so there’s no guarantee that the one you get will be able to help. But in some cases, the mere involvement of a patient advocate is sufficient to cool tensions.

‘No’ your way through birth

Unless you are in a true medical emergency, the baby will come sooner or later. Birth is all about waiting. So if a provider is being unkind, abusive, or coercive, remind yourself that you only have to wait them out. The baby will be here soon. You can “no” your way through the birth: “No, my decisions are not up for debate,” “No, I don’t want that intervention,” “No, I still don’t consent.” It’s not ideal. But it will get you through.

Get legal help

If the hospital is threatening you, don’t waste any time at all. Call a lawyer right now. Many people mistakenly believe that hiring a lawyer will escalate the situation. This is not true. A lawyer levels the playing field. Often the mere involvement of a lawyer will cause the hospital to back down. In many cases, telling the hospital that you are in the process of looking for a lawyer may also help.

Some situations in which it is appropriate to call a lawyer include:

  • The hospital is threatening to force a medical intervention such as a c-section.

  • The hospital is threatening to call DFCS (also known as CPS).

  • A member of the hospital staff has touched you when you explicitly told them not to.

  • The hospital won’t let you hold or touch your baby.

  • The hospital is threatening to seek a court order to compel medical treatment.

  • The hospital lawyer has spoken to you.

In these situations, it’s appropriate to tell the hospital or provider that you are unwilling to interact further until you can hire a lawyer.

Your partner, doula, or a family member should begin the search for a lawyer on your behalf, so that you can focus on laboring. 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 info@georgiabirth.org. National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a national organization that specializes in the rights of birthing people, may also be able to help.

A caveat: your life matters more than anything

An important caveat: if you are facing a true medical emergency, then getting through abusive treatment is no longer a matter of declining unnecessary care or kicking abusive providers out of the room. You need immediate medical care. So document everything that has gone wrong, continue to assert your wishes, and then file a complaint later. The sad reality in a broken maternity system is that sometimes women have to put up with abuse to get the care they need. It’s not fair. But your life matters more than anything else. So if you’re facing an emergency, know that you can recover from whatever happens during labor. There is help on the other side, and there are many options for filing a complaint—especially if you have good documentation such as audio recordings.

Your life and your baby’s life matter more than anything else. No person should have to choose between their bodily autonomy and life. But if you’re put in that position, choose what the doctor recommends. Then fight back later. Learn more about filing a complaint here.