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Hungarian Dr. Agnes Gereb to go to jail for helping with home births March 27, 2012

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Health, Hungary, Women.
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Published On Mon Mar 26 2012, www.thestar.com


Hungarian physician and midwife Dr. Agnes Gereb in court during her malpractice trial in Budapest, Hungary. She begins serving a jail term in May.Hungarian physician and midwife Dr. Agnes Gereb in court during her malpractice trial in Budapest, Hungary. She begins serving a jail term in May.



By Catherine PorterColumnist
Dr. Agnes Gereb is a Hungarian physician and midwife. In May, she’s heading to jail for attending a home birth.

In Hungary, it is legal for women to give birth at home. But any medical professional who helps those women — such as midwives — can be criminally charged.

So women there have two state-sanctioned options: go to the hospital, where Caesarian section rates are frighteningly high, or give birth alone at home like a dog.

Until recently, Gereb offered a third option.

She was an obstetrician-gynecologist who around two decades ago started attending births at women’s homes. She got licensed as a midwife. She opened her own birthing centre. She became famous.

But like spurned family members, the state’s obstetrician-gynecologists hate her. Despite mounting international studies documenting the contrary, they stubbornly maintain that homebirths attended by trained midwives are not safe.

The ob-gyns make good tips from hospital births, Gereb’s supporters point out. Understandably, they aren’t keen to forfeit that.

Most of them, unlike Gereb and her midwife colleagues, are men.

So they, and the police, hounded Gereb.

“We had to hide Agi away when the ambulance came,” Donal Kerry told me over Skype from Hungary, recounting his wife Mirtill’s first homebirth. The baby arrived healthy, the placenta did not follow. It was Gereb who made the call. “The ambulance drivers often call the police on her.”

Last year, she was found guilty of “endangering life in the conduct of her professional work” and sentenced to two years of prison. The court suspended her medical and midwifery licenses for five years. This year, the court of appeal doubled that suspension.

The judge, though, would admit the expert testimony of Hungarian doctors only. So international midwifery experts like Californian Elizabeth Davis were turned away.

“This is exactly what happened in California in the 1980s,” says Davis, a founding member of the Midwives Alliance of North America who had asked to appear in the Hungarian court as an international midwifery expert. “Midwives were arrested. The cost of defending them and the time kept us from professionally developing or doing any public outreach for years. It was not accidental — it’s a harassment strategy repeated over and over in many countries of the world.”

At the centre of Gereb’s case were two babies who had died — one soon after birth, the other months later. Had she delivered them in hospital as an obstetrician-gynecologist, she might have had to answer to the local Hungarian college of physicians. But in Hungary, there is no overseeing college for midwives.

Instead, they appear before the criminal courts and are thrown to the hounds.

Giving birth is when we women are at our most vulnerable. Our bodies cleave in half; we are often frightened.

We deserve to give birth wherever we feel safe — in a hospital, if we want, or at home, with a trained midwife. It’s a fundamental human right.

Last year, after being pushed by the European Court of Human Rights, the Hungarian government agreed to let midwives attend home births, but only if they were close to a hospital and had a special licence. So far, no licences have been issued, Gereb’s supporters tell me.

Meanwhile, last week the Ontario government announced it will open two birthing centres staffed by midwives — giving women here another option.

We are so lucky.

The women of Hungary are not.

I just signed the petition asking Hungarian Prime Minister Pal Schmitt to pardon Gereb.

You should too: www.change.org/petitions/please-grant-full-clemency-to-dr-midwife-agnes-gereb.

Catherine Porter’s column usually appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. She can be reached at cporter@thestar.ca