6 Strategies for Drafting a Good Complaint About Birth Trauma or Obstetric Violence
Every year, 50,000 birthing people suffer catastrophic injuries as they give birth. 1 in 3 describe their birth as traumatic. Many suffer years of physical and psychological pain. When you suffer a traumatic birth, filing a complaint with the right entity can protect other people from abuse. But our culture automatically discounts and disbelieves women, especially when they complain about giving birth.
This is why it’s so important to write a clear and specific complaint. Your audience may be skeptical, and looking for reasons to disbelieve you. This is unfair, and speaks to the toxic culture that creates obstetric violence and allows it to continue. You only get one shot to write a good complaint, though. So follow these strategies to make your message as compelling as possible.
Share the Most Important Information First
Most of us learned in school that a good story starts at the beginning. This isn’t the case when you’re sharing a story of birth trauma. Your reader is likely skeptical and pressed for time. Particularly if you are contacting a lawyer, they may get dozens of messages just like yours every day. So it is important to make your message short and easy to scan. Your opening sentences should clearly and simply state what happened. This allows the person reading your complaint to quickly assess the complaint, and then follow up with questions. Don’t bury the most important detail in a wall of text!
Good: My doctor performed an episiotomy when I said no. Now I have severe pelvic floor dysfunction and incontinence. A few sentences providing more detail.
Bad: Two paragraphs sharing the details of your birth story, why you chose the doctor you did, and how the nurses behaved. A single sentence that mentions the episiotomy as a minor detail.
It is important to anticipate any objections the reader might have, but to do so as clearly and succinctly as possible. This is particularly true if you decline recommended medical care. For example, “I declined a C-section my doctor recommended because ACOG does not recommend a C-section in that situation.”
Think About the Headline
If your birth story became a news story, what would the headline be? This can help you boil your complaint down to the most important elements. Think about what someone who knows little about childbirth and nothing about you might find most interesting or alarming. Then focus on this in your complaint.
Keep it Short
Writing out your story can help you process the trauma. It may even help you identify additional forms of abuse that you initially dismissed. So write as much as you want, and don’t worry about how it looks.
Then don’t send it.
The complaint you send to a lawyer, an advocacy organization, or the media should be much shorter than the long story you write to better understand your experience. Provide only as much detail as is necessary to understand your complaint. Keep paragraphs short—3-5 sentences at most. Long paragraphs without a break are hard to read.
If there are long and complicated details, such as an unusual diagnosis, try missing this in passing and offering to provide more information if necessary.
Good: 3-5 paragraphs that contain just a few short sentences.
Bad: A single paragraph that spans a page or more, or many long paragraphs that contain details that are not necessary to initially evaluate your story.
Mention Any Proof or Supporting Documentation
Our culture does not believe women, even when the overwhelming evidence shows not only that abuse in birth is common, but that it is driving maternal mortality progressively higher. If you have any proof of your claims, such as a video or audio recording, letters, or witnesses, mention this in your letter. This makes your complaint more compelling, especially if you’re contacting a lawyer. Without proof, it is very hard to get a complaint taken seriously. So people planning to give birth soon should also plan to record their birth. Click here to learn more about recording your birth.
Take the Perspective of a Skeptical Reader
No matter whom you contact, they will look for holes in your story. A lawyer wants to assess you as a witness and determine whether your case is a good one. A hospital will look for reasons not to discipline a doctor, and a provider will look for ways to blame you for your own abuse. So consider how a skeptical reader will assess your story and credibility. Some things to keep in mind include:
Does the story make sense, and is it easy to follow?
Have you asked at least one other person to edit and review your story?
Are there grammatical errors or typos in your story?
Do you state clearly and specifically what went wrong, and what should have happened instead?
Have you anticipated potential objections? For example, if you declined recommended medical care, have you explained why?
Consider how someone who does not know your story will view the story. What would someone watching the news or reading a blog post about this story want to know? Which details would be irrelevant?
Say What Should Have Happened Instead, and Provide Evidence
A bad birth is always a tragedy. Sometimes no one is to blame. If you were abused, it is very important to explain why what you experienced was abuse. Do this by saying what should have happened instead. For example, if your baby was stillborn, explain how the doctor failed to take appropriate medical action or, if you are not sure what the appropriate action was, give clear details suggesting your doctor neglected you. For instance, if your doctor ignored your calls for two days or dismissed your pain, this points to significant neglect, even if you’re not sure what medical intervention might have saved your baby.
In medical malpractice cases, you must show that the doctor deviated from the standard of care—not just that you got a bad outcome. The same is generally true when you complain to a medical board. The bar is even higher when complaining to a hospital, since most hospitals won’t take action unless there is clear and compelling evidence of abuse or a negligent provider.
For more tips for complaining about your birth experience, check out this blog post on writing a negative hospital review, or this one on writing a complaint letter to a hospital. Or visit our file a complaint page for help deciding where and how to file a complaint about your birth.