I stopped attending home births in Hungary in 2009 because I was afraid.
I was afraid of exactly what happened to Dr Geréb and some of the members of her midwifery practice. I was afraid I’d be thrown in jail after a hospital transfer, or an ambulance call, a maternal hemorrhage or a newborn death – even if the service that was provided was top notch and professional and timely and appropriate.
I became a doula in 2008 after doing breastfeeding support and childbirth classes since 2005. I became a doula because I was hell bent on participating in a doula camp organized by a home birth midwife in Hungary that was open only to certified doulas. So I had to get certified! I was absolutely determined to start attending home births and I worked hard to be included in that midwifery practice. I also read everything about birth I could get my hands on. I was passionate about supporting women through the birth experience and went to more than 20 births in my first year as a doula, both at home and in the hospital. I also volunteered weekly at a local hospital as a breastfeeding counselor, so I had a unique view of the lives of health care workers, and had an opportunity to chat with the new mothers about their birth experience as I offered them breastfeeding support.
I quickly realized that I wasn’t happy with what was happening in hospitals and I even occasionally disagreed with my midwife mentor. I realized then that I want to attend births, but I wanted to be the decision-maker. I wanted to be a midwife. I started looking into ways to move my family to the States to become a Certified Professional Midwife.
Then one of the home births I attended ended with mother and baby both in the hospital. It wasn’t the first time we had to transfer a laboring woman to a hospital, but this was the one time where there were serious enough complications that the baby was kept in a hospital for almost a week. The experience shook me. I was up nights, wondering whether we had done all the right things, whether we should have transferred them sooner to the hospital. I was terrified that if either of them got worse or heaven forbid, suffered permanent damage, I would be legally and morally responsible.
I looked at my two kids, then 2 and 3 years old, and my supportive husband who was behind me all the way, and I realized I couldn’t take the risk. My mother, brother and sister were begging me to stop attending home births, which they considered little short of criminally insane, just as most Hungarians do. The emotionally exhausting work of supporting women through birth was not made easier but constant media attention on Dr Geréb and her practice., and the constant stream of disapproval from basically everybody around me except my husband.
Maybe if my kids were older and in college, it wouldn’t be such a huge deal if their mother was thrown in jail. Maybe then I could justify running that risk in service of this cause, which I do believe in. My husband probably would have supported me even then, though he laughed at my fears, citing general Hungarian inefficiency (and nonchalance) about breaking rules. He said they’d never get around to prosecuting anyone.
And I was exhausted emotionally from all the worry. The mother and baby turned out fine – I still receive occasional emails from them with a picture of a smiling and happy baby. But my confidence had been shaken. I realized then that no matter what role I played at a home birth in Hungary – whether that of a doula or an apprentice midwife – if anything went wrong at a birth, I would be held legally liable. If anything went wrong while I attended a hospital birth – nobody would look at me twice. But attending hospital births is really challenging and emotionally exhausting, as all doulas know. Home birth proved to be equally challenging, in a different way. I realized that basically I was taking on a huge legal risk for decisions that I did not make. I was an apprentice midwife, and there were occasions I would have made different decisions than my mentor. I may have been willing to take the legal responsibility and face the consequences for my own decisions, but I couldn’t do the same for someone else’s decisions, especially when I did not always agree with them.
I took a long hiatus from attending births and concentrated instead on working on a research proposal about home birth in Hungary that unfortunately was not accepted. I threw myself into birth work in different ways, but I avoided births, both hospital and home.
During that time, there were several rounds of obnoxious media reporting of all home births that ended with a hospital transfer, no matter how timely or how appropriate. Then came the news that Dr Geréb was charged with manslaughter in one of the long-standing cases against her. The charge had been modified from reckless endangerment to manslaughter. And a few weeks later, she herself was arrested in connection with a precipitous premature birth that she had even turned down attending. How ironic is that? And just a few weeks shy of getting her license back as an obstetrician.
So I went to the rally in her support yesterday. I felt it was important for me to be there, to support the cause, to perhaps show the government that they can’t just swoop down and remove the most active home birth midwife in Hungary, after 22 years of waffling on creating the legal framework for home birth in Hungary which the home birth movement has repeatedly asked for. I’m not sure whether she made professional mistakes in those births that she is being charged for. I’ve never worked with her. But this cause is bigger than just her, even though she has courageously taken on the public fight, has accepted the role of martyr for the cause. And the Hungarian government is in serious remission for not having created the legal framework that would allow women to safely choose the location of their births and for professionals to legally attend to women who choose home births. That is just not right.