Birthsong Childbirth Education & Support Services

The Rights of Childbearing Women

(Revised and Expanded, 1999)

Maternity Center Association encourages individuals and organizations to copy and distribute this statement of rights in its entirety, as long as credit is given to MCA. This brochure outlines a set of basic rights that MCA has identified and promotes for all childbearing women. It applies widely accepted human rights to the specific situation of maternity care. Although most of these rights are granted to women in the United States by law, many women do not have knowledge of their rights.

Fundamental Problems with Maternity Care in the United States

This statement was developed in response to serious and continuing problems with maternity care in the United States, including:

  • The United States is the only wealthy industrialized nation that does not guarantee access to essential health care for all pregnant women and infants. Many women, especially those with low incomes, lack access to adequate maternity care.
  • A large body of scientific research shows that many widely used maternity care practices that involve risk and discomfort are of no benefit to low-risk women and infants. On the other hand, some practices that clearly offer important benefits are not widely available in U.S. hospitals.
  • Many women do not receive adequate information about benefits and risks of specific procedures, drugs, tests, and treatments, or about alternatives.
  • Childbearing women frequently are not aware of their legal right to make health care choices on behalf of themselves and their babies, and do not exercise this right.

We must ensure that all childbearing women have access to information and care that is based on the best scientific evidence now available, and that they understand and have opportunities to exercise their right to make health care decisions. Women whose rights are violated need access to legal or other recourse to address their grievances.

Every Woman's Rights

Consideration and respect for every woman under all circumstances is the foundation of this statement of rights.

1. Every woman has the right to health care before, during, and after pregnancy and childbirth.

2. Every woman and infant has the right to receive care that is consistent with current scientific evidence about benefits and risks.* Practices that have been found to be safe and beneficial should be used when indicated. Harmful, ineffective, or unnecessary practices should be avoided. Unproven interventions should be used only in the context of research to evaluate their effects.

3. Every woman has the right to choose a midwife or a physician as her maternity care provider. Both caregivers skilled in normal childbearing and caregivers skilled in complications are needed to ensure quality care for all.

4. Every woman has the right to choose her birth setting from the full range of safe options available in her community, on the basis of complete, objective information about benefits, risks and costs of these options.*

5. Every woman has the right to receive all or most of her maternity care from a single caregiver or a small group of caregivers, with whom she can establish a relationship. Every woman has the right to leave her maternity caregiver and select another if she becomes dissatisfied with her care.* (Only second sentence is a legal right.)

6. Every woman has the right to information about the professional identity and qualifications of those involved with her care, and to know when those involved are trainees.*

7. Every woman has the right to communicate with caregivers and receive all care in privacy, which may involve excluding nonessential personnel. She also has the right to have all personal information treated according to standards of confidentiality.*

8. Every woman has the right to receive maternity care that identifies and addresses social and behavioral factors that affect her health and that of her baby.** She should receive information to help her take the best care of herself and her baby and have access to social services and behavioral change programs that could contribute to their health.

9. Every woman has the right to full and clear information about benefits, risks, and costs of the procedures, drugs, tests and treatments offered to her, and of all other reasonable options, including no intervention.* She should receive this information about all interventions that are likely to be offered during labor and birth well before the onset of labor.

10. Every woman has the right to accept or refuse procedures, drugs, tests and treatments, and to have her choices honored. She has the right to change her mind.*

11. Every woman has the right to be informed if her caregivers wish to enroll her or her infant in a research study. She should receive full information about all known and possible benefits and risks of participation, and she has the right to decide whether to participate, free from coercion and without negative consequences.*

12. Every woman has the right to unrestricted access to all available records about her pregnancy, her labor, and her infant; to obtain a full copy of these records; and to receive help in understanding them, if necessary.*

13. Every woman has the right to receive maternity care that is appropriate to her cultural and religious background, and to receive information in a language in which she can communicate.*

14. Every woman has the right to have family members and friends of her choice present during all aspects of her maternity care.**

15. Every woman has the right to receive continuous social, emotional, and physical support during labor and birth from a caregiver who has been trained in labor support.**

16. Every woman has the right to receive full advance information about risks and benefits of all reasonably available methods for relieving pain during labor and birth, including methods that do not require the use of drugs. She has the right to choose which methods will be used and to change her mind at any time.*

17. Every woman has the right to freedom of movement during labor, unencumbered by tubes, wires, or other apparatus. She also has the right to give birth in the position of her choice.*

18. Every woman has the right to virtually uninterrupted contact with her newborn from the moment of birth, as long as she and her baby are healthy and do not need care that requires separation.**

19. Every woman has the right to receive complete information about the benefits of breastfeeding well in advance of labor, to refuse supplemental bottles and other actions that interfere with breastfeeding, and to have access to skilled lactation support for as long as she chooses to breastfeed.**

20. Every woman has the right to decide collaboratively with caregivers when she and her baby will leave the birth site for home, based on their condition and circumstances.**

(At this time in the United States, childbearing women are legally entitled to those rights marked with *. The legal system would probably uphold those rights marked with **.)

©Maternity Center Association, 1999

To Order the Printed Brochure:
Please send a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope to:
Maternity Center Association, 281 Park Avenue South, 5th Floor, New York, New York 10010.

The following sources have helped guide the development of this statement of rights:

American Hospital Association. A Patient´s Bill of Rights, revised edition approved by the AHA Board of Trustees on October 21, 1992.

Annas, G. J. A national bill of patients´ rights. New England Journal of Medicine338, (10) 695-699, 1998

Annas, G. J. The Rights of Patients, second edition. Carbondale, IL; Southern Illinois University Press, 1989.

Boston Women´s Health Book Collective. Section on "Child-bearing" and chapter on "The politics of women´s health and medical care." In: Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century.New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998, pp. 433-543, 680-722.

Coalition for Improving Maternity Services (CIMS). The Mother-Friendly Childbirth Initiative,1996. Available on Internet at:

Enkin, M., M.J.N.C. Keirse, M. Renfrew, and J. Neilson. A Guide to Effective Care in Pregnancy and Childbirth,second edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

International Childbirth Education Association, Inc. The Pregnant Patient´s Bill of Rights.Minneapolis: ICEA, 1975.

President´s Advisory Commission on Consumer Protection and Quality in the Health Care Industry. Appendix A: Consumer Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.In its Final Report: Quality First: Better Health Care for All Americans.

United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Published by the United Nations, 1948.
The Maternity Center Association grants permission to any individual or organization to copy and distribute the Statement of Rights in its entirety as long as credit is given to the Maternity Center Association.

Thank you to George Annas, professor and chair of Health Law at the Boston University School of Public Health, for clarifying the legal status of the individual rights.

A Declaration of the Rights of Childbearing Women
by Leilah McCracken

Birth is easy; obfuscating medical factoids make it hard. Modern obstetrical knowledge is based on false hospital outcomes; more is known about how bedridden patients give birth than how real, panting, sensual women give birth. The wild animal inside each of us is anesthetized in an unfamiliar environment: we cannot hope to explore our primal side in any hospital nor even at home if our birth attendants are accustomed to working within sterile fields.

Birth is not dangerous; birth need not be frightening; birth does not require people well-versed in the abnormalities of childbirth to observe and record its every fluctuation. Birth needs to be trusted. Birth needs to be believed in. Birth is safe.

There are qualities inherent in safe, loving childbearing which must be recognized as the global rights of all women. Dangerous, dehumanizing medical procedures are violations against women's most basic human rights and are also violations of children's rights to be born without undue pain and exploitation.

Birth's integrity diminishes as obstetric interventions multiply. These are the rights of women and babies everywhere:

1. All women have the right to sacred, fantastic, profound, and loving birth experiences. Childbirth must never be viewed by birth attendants as routine, cumbersome or insignificant.

2. Childbirth must happen in physical and emotional privacy. Women's vaginas in birth are as sacrosanct as they are at any other time; routinely penetrating them with fingers, forceps, scissors or hooks is a severe violation against the most fundamental rights women have to privacy and protection of the self. Women have the right to vocalize, move about, assume any birthing positions they like, and allow their births to unfold uniquely, without feeling the need to gain the acceptance and approval of their birth attendants. Women have the right to refuse birth attendants altogether. All hospital staff, midwives, family members, and friends of birthing women must have full consent before viewing the childbirth process. Women's bodies are never to be regarded as learning aids. No institution has the right to impose spectators on any woman's birth.

3. Women have the right and power of "No": if they understand interventions and procedures, and refuse to allow them to be implemented, their refusals must be respected by all medical personnel. Childbearing women will not be barraged with attempts at mind-changing or browbeating.

4. All women must be physically safe at birth. Instruments of routine interventions seriously harm the bodies of women: scissors, knives, harmful drugs, forceps, catheters, hooks, needles, fingers, tubes, and razors can be classified as tools of assault. Extreme caution must be used whenever intervention into the natural birth process is considered.

5. All babies, either in the process of being born, or after their births, must not be harmed: forceps, scalp electrodes, vacuum extraction, rough or careless handling, early amputation of the umbilical cord, suctioning catheters, ventilating equipment, injections, eye treatments, and an oxygen-deprived birth environment- caused by either pain-relieving or induction drugs- all cause a great deal of distress to new babies, and can upset their future wellbeing as well.

6. All women have the right to complete, immediate access to information regarding all procedures done, either to them or their babies, in pregnancy, birth and the postpartum. Women must be informed of any potential harm of all procedures, regardless of the length of time the explaining takes (except in the most extreme cases). "Informed consent" cannot be taken lightly by women or their birth attendants. Women have the right to be made aware of nonintrusive alternatives to common hospital procedures- such as the superior safety of giving birth at home, waterbirth as a safe method of pain relief and the advantages of natural, private methods of induction of labor.

7. It must be recognized as a criminal act to mutilate women's bodies in childbirth.

8. All women must have easy, free access to information that illuminates the natural childbirth process for them, and helps them prepare for their births, and assists them in preparation for care of their newborns. This information must be given in a way that does not view birth as a dangerous, biological anomaly, but as a natural, joyous one.

9. All women have the right to give birth wherever and with whomever they choose; and to know the safety statistics of any individuals and/or institutions they choose to give birth with/in.

10. All women have the right of complete access to all of their own recorded medical information, as well as access to knowledgeable people to interpret the information who are advocates for the consumer.

11. The newborn must be viewed as a natural appendage of its mother. Mother and child must remain together, in quiet dignity, for as long as the mother desires. Handling of the baby by anyone other than its mother for the first hours of life is to be strongly discouraged.

12. Ongoing breastfeeding information and support must be available to all women.

13. The rights of women are inalienable and will not be undermined by any government, male partner, professional birth attendant, nor any individual or group of individuals whose interests do not reflect the wishes of parturient women regarding their own, or their babies', safety and wellbeing.

These rights cannot possibly, right now, be mandated by any government; too many individuals and organizations are exploiting women's basic needs to trust and to feel safe for their own gain and/or expediency.

Yet birth cannot be safe when a woman's wishes are secondary to those of her birth attendants. These rights must be demanded by every woman; no one will give them freely to her. These rights are for women to learn and cherish. All enlightened women must inform other women of their inherent rights as women of the Earth

Other resources concerning the rights of childbearing women:

The Mother-Friendly Childbirth Initiative