Pregnancy and Childbirth Rights 

Hospitals and medical providers often tell birthing people that they “have to” do something or that they have no right to decline a recommended medical procedure. A broken medical system capitalizes on women not knowing or asserting their rights. The proper balance of power is that medical providers make medical recommendations and birthing people make the decisions. Anything else violates the rights of birthing people. In Georgia, you have the following rights.

The right to decline medical procedures

The right to decline medical procedures includes the right to decline a c-section. Birthing people have the right to vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC) even when it goes against hospital policy.

Being pregnant or in labor does not eliminate the right to decline medical procedures. You can say no to a wide variety of recommended interventions, including:

  • C-section

  • Episiotomy

  • Induction of labor

  • Medical tests

  • Ultrasound

  • Fetal monitoring

The right to decline a procedure does not mean that a hospital won’t try to coerce you to agree. They might tell you that policy requires an intervention, or that you have to say yes. But as long as you continue to assert that you do not consent to a specific intervention, a provide who ignores your wishes has broken the law.

“A doctor cannot force a mother into a medical procedure without a court order,” said civil rights lawyer Jeff Filipovits. “To get a court order, the hospital or doctor must make a compelling case that the mother’s decision endangers the life of her unborn child. The decision must be so misguided that it constitutes neglect. It is insufficient for the doctor to merely disagree with the decision.”

“Fetuses do not have more rights than children,” Filipovits continued. “So if it wouldn’t be neglect of a child, it’s not neglect of a fetus. Minor disagreements with a doctor and failure to abide by hospital policy are unlikely to rise to the level of neglect. It is not illegal to disagree or argue with a doctor, or to ignore hospital policy.”

the right to control your body, even when doctors disagree with you

Hospital policy does not trump the right of a pregnant or laboring person to determine what happens to their own body. A hospital cannot force a person to have a medical procedure without their consent. Hospital policy does not replace the law. .

You own your body. You get to decide what happens to your body, even when you are pregnant or giving birth. The right to decide what happens to your body includes the right not to be touched, the right to decide which providers are allowed to touch or examine you, and the right to labor in the way that feels right to you. Even if the hospital says otherwise or tells you its policy prohibits it, you have the right to:

  • Give birth in the position you choose

  • Move while in labor

  • Eat and drink while in labor

  • Wear the clothing you want

the right to quality care

You have a right to quality care, regardless of race, sex/gender, ability to pay for treatment, disability, or other protected status. You also have a right to quality care even if you question your provider or refuse some recommended procedures. If a doctor or hospital does not follow the standard of care, you have a right to file a complaint.

Some examples of refusing to provide quality care include:

  • Radically departing from the standard of care. For example, a doctor who does not treat an infection may have committed malpractice.

  • Refusing to provide any treatment in labor unless you consent to a specific set of interventions.

  • Giving you substandard treatment to penalize you for asking questions.

  • Verbally abusing you.

  • Physically assaulting you, such as touching you without your permission.

the right to treatment in labor

A hospital cannot refuse to treat a person in labor solely because she chose a VBAC or declined a c-section. The law requires hospitals to provide treatment to people in labor.

Some doctors and hospitals threaten to refuse to treat a patient who does not comply with policy. You don’t have the right to demand treatment from a specific physician. You do, however, have the right to treatment in labor—even if you decline some recommended procedures.

The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) is a federal law covering all hospitals that participate in Medicare. That law requires that hospitals must provide stabilizing treatment to people in labor. A doctor or hospital cannot decline to treat or admit you because you have refused some procedures or had a previous disagreement.

EMTALA is especially important for pregnant people who want to have a vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC). If you show up to the hospital in labor, a doctor cannot refuse to treat you because you have previously declined a c-section. Georgia hospitals have a history of attempting to skirt this law, but doing so is illegal. You do not have to consent to a c-section to get treatment in labor. You can protect yourself against doctors who attempt to refuse treatment by recording your birth.

Under the EMTALA, you do not have a right to treatment from a specific doctor. So you can’t force the doctor of your choice to attend your birth, or stop a doctor from releasing you as a patient. The EMTALA only protects the right to emergency treatment, including treatment in labor. So people who plan to use the EMTALA to assert their right to a VBAC should make plans to ensure they get quality prenatal care before the birth.

the right to make medical decisions about your child

The hospital does not own your child. Nor does your doctor or pediatrician. Parents have a right to make medical decisions about their children unless those medical decisions rise to the level of neglect. So while it might be illegal for you to refuse life-saving treatment, you have a right to refuse most interventions. You also have a right to know what is happening to your child and to hold your child. If a hospital takes your child to another room for an exam, you have a right to be with your child.

Many hospitals have policies separating parents and their children at birth, or for brief periods for medical exams. Hospital policy does not trump a parent’s legal right to make medical decisions about their child. You can request to see your child, and decline medical treatment, including the “treatment” of being separated from you.

If you want to decline treatment for a very sick child, consider consulting a lawyer first. Some hospitals use threats of DFCS/CPS intervention to get parents to agree to treatment. So it’s important to get sound legal advice.

the right to change providers

You have no obligation to be treated by any specific provider. You can change providers at any time during your pregnancy, including when you are giving birth. If you dislike the way a provider is treating you, you can change providers. If you are in labor and a provider is mistreating you, you can request treatment from a different provider. You do not have to submit to treatment from any specific provider. So if you have an issue with a specific nurse or other member of hospital staff, you have the right to request treatment from someone else.

The right to change providers does not mean that you have the right to treatment from any specific provider. A doctor or midwife can refuse to take you on as a patient. If, however, you show up to the hospital in labor, the hospital is legally required to provide treatment.

the right to privacy

You don’t have to be a teaching tool for a medical resident, and you don’t have to labor in the presence of anyone you don’t want there.

Being pregnant or in labor doesn’t mean you lose the right to privacy. You have a right to ask anyone you want to leave the room—even the baby’s other parent. Your body remains your own, and you don’t have to experience your most vulnerable moments in front of anyone you don’t want there.

This means:

  • A doctor or midwife can’t reveal information about your health or medical information without your permission.

  • A hospital, doctor, or other provider can’t use your picture for marketing purposes without your permission.

  • You can ask anyone, even medical providers, to leave the room when you are in labor.

  • You don’t have to accept visitors in labor. In fact, many hospitals are very good at keeping away unwanted visitors. So if you want to keep a specific person out of the room, be sure to tell your provider.

the right to Revoke consent

Consent is an ongoing act. You have the right to revoke consent at any time. For example, even if you previously agreed to and scheduled a c-section, you can cancel surgery and plan a vaginal birth instead.

Most hospitals ask patients to sign long and complicated consent forms. This practice is problematic because people are often in labor and very afraid when they sign these forms. They may have no idea what they are signing. But the fact that you sign a broad consent form does not mean you have to consent to an intervention down the road.

This can get tricky in labor. Labor is often difficult and frightening, and hospitals can be quite coercive. So if you don’t make clear that you are revoking your consent, a provider may use the fact that you have previously consented to a procedure as evidence that you still consent. So be sure to use clear, specific language. “I do not consent” or “I am revoking my consent” are among the most powerful things you can say in labor.

the right to your medical records

In almost all circumstances, you have a right to view your medical records and to request changes if they contain inaccurate medical information. A provider must release medical records within 30 days of a request to do so. Physicians are required to retain medical records for at least 10 years. They may request a reasonable fee to copy and mail the records.

the right to complain and share your story

Your birth is your own. You have the right to tell anyone you want about it. Some people mistakenly believe that they violate medical privacy laws if they leave negative public reviews or contact the media. This is absolutely untrue. You can’t violate your own medical privacy. You can tell anyone and everyone about your birth. You can leave negative reviews littered across the Internet, and contact every media outlet imaginable. The only caveat here is that you must share information that is true. Lying about a doctor or provider is a form of defamation that could subject you to a lawsuit. So make sure you use the correct name for all providers you mention, and stick to the facts. Then shout your story from the mountaintops if that’s what feels right.

Disclaimer: The law can suddenly change. The specific facts of any case can change the rights to which a person is entitled. Further, the information in this post applies only to Georgia. Laws vary in other states. The above information should not be construed as legal advice. The Georgia Birth Advocacy Coalition is not a lawyer, a law firm, or your lawyer. The only person who can offer decisive and reliable legal advice is a lawyer licensed to practice in your state who knows the facts of your case.