The Shame of Our Nation: How Ágnes Geréb’s Case Became a Human Rights Issue In More Ways Than One

by Réka Morvay on October 21, 2010

A woman should be free to choose where and with whom she gives birth. As it stands in Hungary, although Hungarian law gives her this freedom, it also turns around and prohibits anybody from offering professional assistance. The de facto effect is a loss of women’s choice. However, this threat of prosecution and imprisonment for helpers has been theoretical – until now. On October 5th, it turned into ugly reality. Ágnes Geréb, Hungary’s most prominent home birth midwife, was arrested on that day and has been held by the authorities since then. The manner of her confinement raises the second set of human rights issues. Click here and check out the Side Effects of Xarelto to see if you or a loved one has been affected by this drug.

It is a fundamental right of a woman to choose where and with whom to give birth. Hungarian law states that Hungarian women have this choice. However, unless a woman wants to give unassisted birth at home, she is out of luck because the law also states that it is prohibited for anybody to assist at a planned home birth. Health care professionals such as doctors or nurses face losing their license, non-medical personnel such as lay midwives, face prosecution for practicing medicine without a license.

Dr. Ágnes Geréb worked for 17 years as an obstetrician at a Hungarian hospital. Even early in her career, she was a pioneer and a rebel: she was one of the first doctors in Hungary to take the radical step to allow fathers in the delivery room. This was in the 1970s when men’s access to birthing rooms was strictly forbidden and women were separated from their loved ones when giving birth to their babies.

As her career progressed, Dr Geréb found that births went better when the woman was allowed to labor in a familiar environment for as long as possible. She took the second radical step and started attending women’s labors at home, transferring to the hospital as far along the process as possible. And then inevitably, a baby was born before they reached the hospital and eventually, Dr Geréb became a passionate advocate for home birth in Hungary.

Dr Geréb is not the only home birth midwife in Hungary. She is not even the only doctor in Hungary who attends out of hospitals births. But she is the one who has taken on the cause openly, and accepted the media attention, the public recrimination, and yes, even the role of martyr for the cause. The others are – understandably – trying to lie as low as possible and make it through the current witch hunt unscathed and un-incarcerated.

At first, the medical establishment simply responded to Dr Geréb by withdrawing her license to practice as an obstetrician. She then attended and completed obstetric nurse training so she could officially attend home births not as a doctor, but as a nurse. This was when it still appeared that these maneuverings could possibly result in an officially recognized “home birth midwife” capacity that the authorities would recognize. Instead, it resulted in further prosecutions any time there was an urgent hospital transfer. To date, Dr Geréb has 5 charges against her for complications that arose during births under her supervision.

For 22 years, Dr Geréb and her group of midwives, doulas and birth advocates have been trying to get the government to regulate home birth in Hungary, to provide the legal framework that would allow women to take advantage of their supposed freedom to choose home birth. For 22 years, every government has swept the issue aside. Dr Geréb and her team submitted a proposal, which was discarded. The Hungarian Board of Obstetrics countered with their own proposal, which called for 2 obstetricians with at least 10 years of experience each, and an ambulance stationed outside the birthing woman’s home. Obviously, these conditions were not realistic, and negotiations stalled.

However, women do not wait for regulations to be written and be put into practice – they go on getting pregnant and giving birth without regard for such things. And because women continued to put their trust into Dr Geréb and her team, she and her team continued to attend births despite the growing number of charges against them.

What happened on October 5th was truly ironic. Dr Geréb and her staff were in the middle their customary one-week-long prenatal course for pregnant women who wish to give birth with their practice. A client arrived for her 37-week checkup, also a customary occurrence for clients of her midwifery practice. This client happened to be someone whose birth Dr Geréb declined attending because of a blood clotting disorder. However, she did agree to provide the woman’s prenatal care. It was for a routine prenatal visit this woman came for on October 5th when she suddenly went into labor. Extremely quick labors such as this are rare, but not unheard of in medical practice. Dr Geréb and hear team immediately called the ambulance, which according to those present for the course, took 40 minutes to arrive. Until it arrived, Dr Geréb continued her resuscitation efforts for the child who was born with practically no respiration and no circulation. The distraught father ran outside the birth center and flagged down an ambulance that happened to be driving by. Eventually, two other sets of ambulances also arrived, though some of the eye witnesses present claim they appeared to be in no hurry to attend to the child, instead waiting for the police to arrive. The baby was eventually transferred to a hospital, while police attempted to question the freshly delivered mother. The mothers attending the childbirth course at the birth center were also detained and questioned.

Dr Geréb and three other members of her team were taken into custody by the police. The three others were released shortly thereafter, but Dr Geréb was detained on the request of the state prosecutor. The grounds were that were she to be released, she was likely to continue breaking the law by attending more births.

In a reaction to Dr Geréb’s imprisonment, the members of her practice decided to suspend their birth services. This effectively leaves the mothers in Hungary with no other choice but to go to a hospital. This is a fundamental violation of the rights they are guaranteed by Hungarian law.

As the days progressed, eye witness reports were leaking out about how Dr Geréb was being treated in prison. Dr Geréb is a delicate, small woman of nearly 60. She has always cooperated with the authorities in all her trials. And yet, now she was being taken to court for her hearings in not just handcuffs, but also foot shackles. When the judge presiding over the hearings asked her guards whether that was necessary, given that Dr Geréb had made no attempts to escape, the guards replied simply that “it had been ordered.” The foot shackles were put on so tightly that they caused a 10 cm gash on Dr Geréb’s ankle. She asked the guards to loosen her shackles, which the guards denied. This was reported by an eyewitness who happens to be a representative of one of Hungary’s political parties. This same representative went to visit Dr Geréb in jail, where she learned that before and after each visit, Dr Geréb was subjected to nude, full body cavity search.

This representative then wrote a speech which was read in Parliament and appealed to the Hungarian deputy prime minister to take a stand against Dr Geréb’s horrific treatment, especially in light of the fact that Dr Geréb became a criminal primarily through the government’s failure to provide the regulations which would have made her work legal.

As a Hungarian citizen, I am deeply shocked and outraged by the way Dr Geréb’s case(s) have been treated by the Hungarian government. Previously, there were key pieces of testimony that went missing from her trials. The cases against her were combined and transmuted to manslaughter. She is being prosecuted for “killing as a result of carelessness during work” which is oddly not a charge ever leveled at an obstetrician working in a hospital, no matter how many babies die in their care. Doctors working in a hospital at worst face a letter from a medical negligence attorney in Chicago or a lawsuit and a slap on the wrist from their superiors.

What I would like to know is:

  • Where did the key parts of Dr Geréb’s testimony disappear to?
  • Who ordered her arrest without a malpractice trial?
  • Who ordered her guards to keep her in leg shackles?
  • Why is it necessary to subject her to a full body cavity search every time she receives a visitor?

I search and read at night on sites like hastingsfirm.com for news and perspective, I may never get the answer to these questions, but they do lead me to my rhetorical question: Does Hungary’s country image really need this? We are quite literally abusing an elderly woman, subjecting her to medieval treatment. What’s next, torture? The rack? Burning at the stake?

After the toxic sludge catastrophe, after the IMF fiasco, this medieval witch hunt may be the final nail in the coffin of Hungary’s international reputation.

—-

If you would like to raise your voice in opposition to the Hungarian government’s treatment of Dr Geréb in particular, and home birth in general, please write to any or all the following agencies:

Office of the Prime Minister
1357 Budapest Pf. 2
lakossag@meh.gov.hu

Tibor Navracsics
Minister of Public Administration and Justice
1357 Budapest Pf.2
lakossag@kim.gov.hu

László Kövér
FIDESZ President (leading political party)
1088 Budapest, Szentkirályi u. 18.
fidesz@fidesz.hu

Office of Parliament
Committee on Human Rights, Minorities, Civil and Religious Matters
1358 Budapest, Széchenyi rkp. 19.
emb@parlament.hu

Sándor Pintér, Minister of the Interior
1903 Budapest Pf.: 314
ugyfelszolgalat@bm.gov.hu

Dr. Tamás Kovács, State Prosecutor
State Prosecutor’s Office
1372 Budapest, Pf. 438.
lu@mku.hu

Miklós Réthelyi, Minister
Ministry of National Resources (incl. Health)
1054 Budapest, Akadémia u. 3.
info@nefmi.gov.hu

Budapest Courts
1363 Bp. Pf. 16
Fax: +361-354-6066

Hungarian National Press Service
1016 Budapest, Naphegy tér 8.
ots@mti.hu
multimedia@mti.hu
mti@mti.hu

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Leo Sigh October 23, 2010 at 7:23 am

This really is disgusting. The Hungarian government should be ashamed, and ashamed that this poor woman is being kept in jail at tax payer expense for something she should be able to do. A home birth should be every woman’s right.

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Anne Sokol October 26, 2010 at 7:17 pm

Thank you for writing this. I just wrote individual e-mails to all the addresses you supplied. And I hope others will write, too.

I live in Kiev, Ukraine, and the situation is very similar to Hungary as far as birth laws.

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Judit K Hutson October 30, 2010 at 6:46 am

Well, I am VERY saddened. 1st of all me being Hungarian/American this is really close to my heart and I had a home birth here in the US so I am totally for it. It is sad that the government is trying to control everything :(
I am for sure will write to them, Thanks for sharing this.

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Ana Garcia October 30, 2010 at 7:23 pm

I am so disgusted! How come a supposely democratic country, part of the european community goes on with this without any other european country members of CE pressuring it to end it right away? That is such an outcry of basic human rights that I cant even recall another example of any known criminal awayting trial or already convicted treated this way! It sure it must have to do with that atavic fear of female power that no and again comes to surface, as any other witch hunt that happened in the Human history. Have International Amnistia been contacted because of this situation? Or Aziz? Because it should!

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Michelle November 1, 2010 at 11:23 am

Nicely described.

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daniel erdely November 25, 2010 at 6:33 am

Dr. Tamás Kovács, State Prosecutor
State Prosecutor will be changed after his 70th birthday, 13 of Dec. Just one week before Agis Birthday: 20 of December.
I don’t know the new Prosecutor’s name yet.

Reply

Caroline Kindy December 2, 2010 at 10:31 am

How unkind. How can this be happening in the world today. Women want the right to birth at home, and to have assistance from whomever they feel comfortable with. Agnes Gereb should be free. The Hungarian authorities should feel guilty.

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Munchmagus December 3, 2010 at 3:54 am

I wonder what would happen if every woman in Hungary refused to get pregnant until the law is changed?

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Misa Leno December 5, 2010 at 7:25 pm

Thank you very much for sharing this. I would like to share my experience, which is very similar, we are into train because I gave birth at home.

In July, I gave birth a home, and as the baby was slow to start breathing on her own, the midlwife decided to call an ambulance while giving the baby resus. When they came, they “took over” (and at that moment the baby was already able to breathe on her own), starting to give the wrong resus (the adult one, she was giving the neonatal one), screaming at me, wanting to pull the placenta out of my body … etc. We were then transferred to hospital, the baby was denied a company of her parents – she was breathing completely alone and was ok – where we stayed for 4 days. In these 4 days the head of birthing hospital among other unethical actions called me and my partner to the meeting where she was humiliating us verbaly and also organised a press conference when she went on about how she is goning to do everything to prevent the home birth in Slovenia, of course drawing on her distorted evidence against home births.

In Slovenia, home births are not regulated, there is no law that would say how it should be or if is it allowed or not. So now, they are making a train, questioning all of us, and trying to nail my midwifes (both were from abroad as in Slovenia there is none who would do a home birth).

One of the midwifes went with to the hospital after transfer to be there for possible explanations or similar. They completely ignored her, only to label my birth as a home birth with no professional assistance. Both midwifes of course are registered.

The basis for criminal charge with which they want to go forward is that the midwifes were artificially ending my pregnancy (mind that a baby was after term!!) which is completely crazy. Also, the charlatanism possibly.

I think this has to stop, we are in EU where all about home births is clearly stated and we have to go trhu this painful and unethical charges just because we did birth at home.

So my midwifes were not arrested, but our police is doing their best attempt to achieve that.

I feel powerless and disappointed, along with endless frustration and sadness of how this is even possible in 21st century Europe!

Misa Leno (As much as I would like to write my real name, I have to put an pseudonym)

Reply

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