More than 1 in 8 women report being mistreated during childbirth, new study finds. Women share their stories.

A pregnant woman undergoing an exam.
What it's like to be mistreated while pregnant. (Getty Images)

Jai Mitchell had planned to have a home birth. “My sister had a really bad hospital experience,” Mitchell, who lives in New York City, tells Yahoo Life. “Knowing the statistics and the things that happen when it comes to births, and Black women specifically, in the hospital, I just didn’t feel safe. I thought that I would be safer if I did a home birth.”

But while Mitchell was in labor, things started to go wrong. “I was in some type of distress,” she says, and her doula decided it was time to go to the hospital. “At the hospital, I felt like they were almost punishing me for attempting to have a home birth,” Mitchell says, sharing that it took hours for her to be seen after she arrived. “It was two hours of me screaming and crying and literally begging, ‘Help me.’ Like, these are my literal words: ‘Can someone help me?’”

When she was finally brought into a labor and delivery room, hospital staff demanded that her doula leave. “It got really intense between her and security, almost to the point of physical removal,” Mitchell says. “She’s showing them paperwork, they’re still kicking her out, my legs are in the stirrups because I’m preparing to push, so my legs are just wide open and security guards are peering in, arguing, screaming, yelling. It was a pretty big mess.”

Eventually, Mitchell’s doula left, as she didn’t want Mitchell or the baby to be in further distress. “I ended up on FaceTime with her, but they also told me I wasn’t allowed to do that and they were making a big deal of it, but I was just like, 'Listen, at this point, I have to have her here in some way. She’s my person of comfort.’” Mitchell ended up safely delivering her daughter, who is now 2, with her doula coaching her via FaceTime. “It turned out OK,” she says. “But ultimately it was a pretty traumatic experience.”

Why mistreatment during pregnancy matters

Mitchell’s experience is sadly consistent with a new study published in JAMA Network Open, which was based on data from Columbia University's 2020 Postpartum Assessment of Health Survey. It found that more than 1 in 8 new moms report being ignored, shouted at or scolded by their health care provider during childbirth. Of the 4,458 people included in the study, 13% said they were mistreated during delivery, with LGBTQ-identifying parents, those of Southwest Asian, Middle Eastern or North African descent, and multiracial and Black moms being more likely to have a negative experience.

The study follows last August's report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealing that 1 in 5 women in the U.S. feels mistreated during their maternity care. For Black, Hispanic or multiracial women, that number rises to 1 in 3. The most common types of mistreatment reported were: “receiving no response to requests for help; being shouted at or scolded; not having their physical privacy protected; and being threatened with withholding treatment or made to accept unwanted treatment.” This is to say nothing of the rising rates of maternal mortality in the U.S.; more than 80% of those deaths are considered preventable.

‘They’re just doing things to me’

Imaan Ennis of Colorado became pregnant in late 2021 and also wanted to give birth at home. “Being Black, we don’t have the best history with the medical industry. We’ve been experimented on,” she says, explaining why she wanted to forgo a hospital. But when her water spontaneously broke at 18 weeks pregnant, she knew she had to go to a medical facility. While the doctor and nurse did the swabs required to make sure what she had felt was indeed amniotic fluid, Ennis was floored by their behavior. “They were just having some conversation about their weekend or whatever. It was not appropriate for the space. Like, I’m losing a baby right now, and you’re talking about whatever’s going on in your life? That was wrong,” she says. She remembers of the moment, “I’m scared, my husband’s scared and they’re not really walking me through what’s happening. They’re just doing things to me.”

Ennis lost the baby but still had to go through a delivery. Six months later, the hospital called to schedule the baby’s checkup appointment. “You’re lucky I’m in a good place about this,” Ennis told the hospital worker over the phone. “I’m just another number. You don’t care, because why would you call me and ask something like that, and why is [the loss] not documented?”

‘It’s like they didn’t care about my consent’

These experiences of mistreatment span the country and have lasting impacts on the people who endure them. Afia Owusu, 31, is originally from Ghana but married an American and had both of her daughters in Georgia. While the birth of her second child went smoothly, the delivery of her first daughter still upsets her.

After what she was told was her due date came and went, she went to the hospital for a scheduled induction, a procedure she felt pressured to agree to even though she never really wanted it. A few hours later she was told she would need a C-section. “I told them I would like to wait a little bit. Where I come from, my sisters have children, and we never heard of anything like inducing or putting into labor,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about induction or how it works, and they did not explain it to me.” Eventually, the baby’s heart rate began to drop, and Owusu was brought into the operating room for a C-section, during which Owusu began struggling to breathe. She’s not sure what happened after that point, but thankfully her baby was born safe. She says she later found out that the doctor had been wrong about the due date and that she could have safely carried her baby longer. When she became seriously ill a year after the delivery, she blamed her illness on her traumatic birthing experience.

“It’s like they didn’t care about my consent,” she says, thinking back on that day. “The doctor kept pushing the C-section, and I kept refusing, and she got mad.”

Of the experience, Owusu says she was completely surprised. “I was having more expectations,” she says. “In Africa they made us believe that here [in the U.S.] everything is the best.”

‘My husband has so much trauma’

The theme of disrespect is at the heart of many women’s accounts of mistreatment. Cloe Alvarado, a mother and doula in New York City, felt disrespected beginning as early as her prenatal visits. Alvarado, who describes herself as overweight, says when she went in for her gestational diabetes test, the medical practitioner took a look at her and decided that both gestational diabetes and preeclampsia were inevitable. “God forbid an overweight person be healthy,” Alvarado says sarcastically, noting that the doctor was wrong about both — she had neither preeclampsia nor gestational diabetes.

Like Owusu, Alvarado also felt pressure to have a C-section. Arriving at the hospital after going into labor, “three doctors came into the room to tell me that I should get a C-section before they even allowed me to labor at all,” she remembers. From there the experience is a bit of a blur. “They decided to induce me,” she says. “I don’t know, I think I was just dazed and confused by that point. I don’t know if there was informed consent or if there wasn’t, I truly don’t remember.” Eventually, a C-section was performed, and the first words she remembers being said about her son is one of the labor and delivery nurses remarking, “Look, it’s a Sasquatch.”

Alvarado remembers the day only in bits and pieces; her husband remembers the day as horrifying. “My husband has so much trauma,” she says. “Yes, this is my delivery, my baby, my body, but it’s also his journey to becoming a father. The helplessness and the disrespect and the fear that they instilled in him has never disappeared.”

‘It did feel like a trauma response’

“Everything that happens surrounding the birth of a baby is amplified — your body is more sensitive, your emotions volatile, stress is through the roof,” shares Sophie Paine, who delivered her two daughters in Texas. Paine found that a nurse’s disregard for her comfort and pain levels after a C-section, including pressuring her to take a lower dose of pain medication, reared its head years after the fact. “Several years later I tried to get an IUD placed and I could not get through the procedure. I was crying and I just could not take the pain,” she recalls. “The doctor seemed to think my reaction was disproportionate to what was happening, and I honestly don’t know. It did feel like a trauma response at the time, an out-of-control, emotional reaction to the pain and the circumstance and the helplessness.”

Moving on from the experience

For Mitchell, the experience of her first birth has made her very confused about where she would like to give birth were she to have a second. “You have the hospital as a place you’re supposed to be able to go to have your baby safely, but then you have to deal with people just having no respect for you as an individual and the birth process in general,” she says. “It’s a very strange thing not knowing what is best.”

For both Alvarado and Ennis, their traumatic maternity care experiences led them to become birth doulas. Even though Ennis’s pregnancy ended in loss, she says she later tried to find a good moment from the experience. The one she landed on was a nurse telling her “this too shall pass,” and the sense of calm that woman’s reassurance gave her. “I wanted to be able to do that for somebody else,” she says.

Prior to her own pregnancy, Alvarado was a postpartum doula, but after having her son she trained to be a birth doula as well. Respect is a central part of her work and her training, in no small part due to the lack of respect she felt when she gave birth. “Even the women who have something horrible — like they have to get an emergency C-section or they have extreme tearing or they have to use a vacuum — if they felt respected and listened to by the nurse or the provider, they left feeling good about the situation,” she says. “But the women who didn’t feel respected and didn’t feel cared for — even if they had a six-hour vaginal delivery, like what people are dreaming of — they felt like they [had a] traumatic experience.”

When she thinks back on her birth experience, she notes that it changed her in ways she wants to protect other women from. She adds, “This is an experience you’ve never been through. This is going to change your entire world — you’re becoming a parent. This is a birth of a mother and a child, and you have to be disrespected and treated poorly and not listened to and told that they know your body, they know your pain level? How does that make any sense?”

This article was originally published on Oct. 5, 2023 and has been updated.