Medical Mistreatment of Pregnant People
Everyone deserves to be respected and supported throughout their pregnancy. We’re here to help you understand your rights and how you can advocate for what is best for you.
We hope the information on this page will help you better understand what is happening in your state and throughout the country, but this is not legal advice. To talk to a lawyer for a free legal assessment specific to you, call 844-868-2812 or contact us through our secure online form.
If you are a midwife looking for legal advice, please contact the Birth Rights Bar Association by emailing them at [email protected].
On this page, we provide links to other organizations that are not a part of If/When/How or the Repro Legal Helpline. We are not responsible for any information they offer and/or services they provide. We are also not responsible for any actions you take based on the information and/or services they provide.
No. Your health care provider must tell you about their recommended treatment. And they should give you time to think about the information before you make a decision. You can and should ask questions about the risks, benefits, and other treatment options. You have the right to say no to treatment that you do not want or do not agree with. This is called informed consent and refusal.
If you consent to your provider’s recommended treatment, they will ask you to sign forms to show that you agree. But you have the right to change your mind, even after signing those forms. This is called revoking your consent. To do that, tell your health care provider that you do not consent to their recommended treatment. As soon as you’re able to, you should put your refusal in writing.
During serious medical emergencies, a provider might need to act fast to save your life, so informed consent and refusal will not look the same or may not happen at all. But aside from immediate, lifesaving emergencies, you still have the right to understand your health care provider’s advice, hear about the risks, and make decisions that feel best for you.
There might be times when your provider ignores or disagrees with your decision, and tries pressuring you into their recommended treatment. You have the right to leave, even if your provider says you cannot. This is called leaving against medical advice (AMA). And unfortunately, there can sometimes be medical or legal consequences (or both) for refusing treatment or leaving against medical advice. For example, providers may threaten to call child protective services, say you can’t leave the hospital, threaten you with a psychiatric hold, or try to get a judge to order you to do what the hospital wants.
If you are feeling pressured by the hospital, you can ask for a patient advocate. You can also say that you need time to think about what the health care provider is saying, but that you feel pressured by their approach and would like to speak to someone about your experience. Or you can ask to speak to another doctor and say that you’d like a second opinion.
If you are being legally threatened, you think your consent or refusal was ignored, or you are thinking about leaving against medical advice, call 844-868-2812 or contact us through our secure form to speak with a lawyer.
Every abortion ban has an exception to save the life of the pregnant person. You also have the legal right to get emergency medical care in an emergency room in every single state (even states with abortion bans). Emergency medical care includes treating a pregnant person in labor or having a miscarriage.
There is a federal law, called the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), that says that every person who has a medical emergency and goes to an emergency room has the right to get the emergency care they need. This includes treatment for a pregnant person in labor until they have delivered their baby. You have the right to emergency care even if you do not have insurance or can’t afford to pay for the medical care. You also have the right to treatment regardless of your immigration status. It is important to know that even though they cannot refuse to treat you if you are unable to pay, the hospital can still send you a bill after treatment.
But in some states with abortion bans, hospitals have been confused about what medical care they can or cannot give to pregnant people. If your hospital is confused or if you are not given the care you need in a pregnancy emergency, including an abortion, call 844-868-2812 immediately or contact us through our secure online form to speak with a lawyer.
It is possible that you have a claim for money (“damages”) against a hospital for denying you the care you needed, especially if you or your child were seriously hurt because of the denial.
You can also file an Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA) complaint against a hospital that refused to give you the care you need in a pregnancy emergency. A complaint is not the same as a lawsuit, and you do not need a lawyer to do it. The federal or state government investigates the complaint.
Because it is not the same as a lawsuit, you do not get money from the hospital if the government finds that the hospital violated your rights. Instead, the hospital may have to pay a fine or other penalty. And hopefully, that hospital will no longer deny anyone the care they need in a pregnancy emergency.
Here are some examples of other complaints you may be able to file:
- a complaint with the state licensing agency for the health care provider or facility
- a complaint with the hospital’s patient advocate
- a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights
For information about whether and how to file any of these types of complaints, or if you are interested in suing the hospital that denied you care, please call 844-868-2812 or contact us through our secure form to speak with a lawyer.
You have the right to give birth with the support and in the environment that you choose. This can look different for everyone. For some people, giving birth in a hospital with an Ob/Gyn might feel best, but others prefer a birth center or at home with the support of a midwife. Exercising your right to the provider or environment of your choosing may come with its own challenges, but you have the right to change providers if you are not feeling supported.
A birth plan lets your provider know in writing what kind of care you want to receive during labor and delivery. You do not need one, but some people find it a helpful tool to talk to their providers, understand all their options, and communicate their wishes to their provider, nurses, and staff in the labor and delivery unit. Your health care provider should follow your birth plan as closely as possible, but a birth plan is not a legal document that they must follow.
Your birth plan should include whatever YOU want. Everyone’s birthing experience is unique. It should include what you believe is right for you and important to you. You can also include what you do not want, such as an epidural, or that you would like to avoid a C-section if medically possible. When you create or talk about the birth plan with your health care provider, let them know what is important to you and ask what they can or cannot provide.
Some providers dislike when their patients create a birth plan or will ignore birth plans. If you don’t feel supported by your health care provider, you can think about changing providers to see who you might be more comfortable with. You can read about changing your provider below under If my health care provider won’t agree to explore a VBAC with me or support my preferences, what can I do?
If you have any questions about your options during labor and delivery, ask your health care provider for more information. And remember, you can always change your birth plan. It’s entirely up to you, so include as many or as few details as you’d like. There is no right way to create a birth plan. For a sample birth plan and outline you can use, see the one created by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
You should speak to your provider about your wishes because having a vaginal birth after a cesarean (VBAC) birth depends on many factors. Not all providers or hospitals will support a pregnant person having a vaginal birth after a prior cesarean delivery so start the conversation with your provider as early as possible. You can also call the office when you are searching for a health care provider to ask how they support VBACs before you schedule an appointment. You want to make sure that your provider has your medical history, so try to get any medical records from past pregnancies and births so that you and your health care provider can discuss your circumstances and options with your records in front of you. To learn more about VBACs, you can visit these resources:
You can tell your provider that a VBAC is really important to you and you’d like to explore the option. You always have the right to change your provider, but if it is later in your pregnancy or if your pregnancy is considered high-risk, it will be harder to find a new provider.
You can make calls to different providers and offices and ask if they will see a new patient. And if there are other providers at your current office, you can ask to see them instead. Sometimes they will agree, but not always. It depends on your specific circumstances and how far along you are in your pregnancy. There may also be people in your community who have had a successful VBAC, and you can talk to them about their experience with their provider.
Anyone! Many people get support from family members, friends, or a significant other, but you can also have the support of a doula. A doula is a trained professional who can provide physical, emotional, and/or informational support before, during, and/or after birth. Doulas can help people have a healthy pregnancy, birth experience, and postpartum period. There are many ways a doula can be certified or trained. What’s important is that your doula has the values, skills, and experience that are important to you. Specifically, a doula can:
- answer questions you may have about prenatal care and postpartum care
- provide education and information around labor and delivery
- lessen the risk of legal intervention
- be present with you wherever you choose to give birth
- provide pain management techniques and support
- advocate for you during the birthing process; if this is important to you, be sure to ask the doula in advance if this is something they do
You can find a doula by searching online for doulas near you. Some health care providers may also know of local doulas or doula groups that they can recommend. Or people in your community can recommend a doula that supported them during their birth. For more information on how to find a doula, see below.
The cost for a doula varies. Some doulas offer payment plans or sliding scale services, and some offer their services for free in order to complete their certification requirements. Some insurance companies will also reimburse parents if they submit a claim. In a few states, Medicaid covers doula services. But in most cases, having a doula is an out-of-pocket expense. Contact your health insurance directly to ask whether doula services are covered. If you find a doula you like, but your insurance does not cover the cost, you should ask the doula about financial options and payment plans.
The postpartum period can be a challenging time and having support can be really important for a successful recovery. Your health care team should talk to you about the healing process, including guidance on how to take care of your body and reasons to call your provider or seek emergency care.
If you plan to breast- or chestfeed, you can ask for more information and request a visit from the hospital or birth center’s lactation consultant. Not every facility has a lactation consultant on staff though, so you should discuss this with your health care provider before your delivery date.
You can also ask for postpartum care supplies, such as pads, mesh underwear, peri bottles, dermoplast, ice packs, newborn diapers, formula, and wipes. Some providers also offer visiting services where someone from your health care team will come to your home to check on you.
If you do not feel supported by your health care team after you give birth, you have the right to ask them for the help that you need. But we know not everyone can or wants to do this. And sometimes, involving health care providers can create risk. You can also reach out for support in your community, such as a postpartum doula, a new parenting group, and/or a breast-or chestfeeding group. You can learn more below under Resources to locate doulas.
- Ancient Song Doula Services – National birth justice organization working to eliminate maternal and infant mortality and morbidity among low-income Black and Latinx people. Provide resources and access to holistic doula care and services regardless of their ability to pay.
- Black Doula Locator – The Black Doula Locator is a resource pregnant or postpartum mamas to locate Black Doulas from around the country
- DONA International – A directory of DONA certified doulas throughout the country.
- Queer Doula Network – A directory of queer full spectrum providers for queer individuals seeking support during reproductive journeys.
- Atlanta Doula Collective A team of doulas providing affordable labor support options for Black families throughout the Metro-Atlanta area.
- Baltimore Doula Project – Community doula program that offers full-spectrum (birth, postpartum, and abortion) doula services for families in Baltimore City and County on a sliding scale
- Triangle Doulas of Color – Doula services and resources in North Carolina
- International Cesarean Awareness Network (ICAN). Offers information and support regarding the prevention of unnecessary cesareans and recovery from cesareans, including recovery from birth trauma.
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