Kimberly Turbin (seen here with her son) has filed a lawsuit against Dr. Alex Abbassi; she alleges he gave her a forced episiotomy during labor in 2013. (Photo: Lindsay Askins at spotofserendipity.com)
A California woman whose disturbing birth video captured her doctor giving her a forced episiotomy — causing public outcry among an army of supporters after it was posted on YouTube — has filed a lawsuit against him for assault and battery with the aid of a prominent civil-rights attorney and the advocacy organization Improving Birth.
“This is a big step for women who have been silenced,” plaintiff Kimberly Turbin, of Los Angeles, said Thursday in a statement about the suit against Dr. Alex Abbassi, an obstetrician at Providence Tarzana Medical Center in California. “Every time I hear one of these stories about women being ignored when they complained about how they were treated in the hospital, it reminds me of why I’m doing this. It took a lot of people to get this far, but this is the proof that you can do something.”
The arduous journey that Turbin refers to includes filing complaints with her hospital and state medical board that she says went ignored, posting her video online for help seeking justice, and raising more than $11,000 for legal fees through a still-active online campaign. Improving Birth was among a handful of advocacy organizations that adopted her cause as a striking example of what’s increasingly termed “obstetric violence,” which can range from coerced medical interventions such as cesarean sections to simply being talked down to during labor. And after a year-and-a-half search for a lawyer in which more than 80 attorneys turn the case down, the organization eventually persuaded Mark Merin of Sacramento to take it on.
“I do civil rights work and this is a civil rights case, and it’s pretty outrageous that she would be so treated by a physician when she clearly was not consenting to an episiotomy,” Merin tells Yahoo Parenting. “The physician acted in total disregard of the patient’s interest — either because he practices backward medicine…or because it was just heartless for some other reason.”
Dr. Abbassi did not return a call from Yahoo Parenting seeking comment on Thursday.
Dr. Alex Abbassi, who was served with a lawsuit on Wednesday. (Photo: Providence Tarzana Medical Center)
Turbin, 27, who chose to remain anonymous and be known only as “Kelly” when her story was reported in April, gave birth at Providence Tarzana Medical Center in 2013. When she arrived, according to both Improving Birth and a copy of the lawsuit obtained by Yahoo Parenting, she confided in the medical team that she was a two-time sexual-assault survivor, therefore requesting that nurses to be “calm and gentle” and to inform her of what was happening through every step of the birth process.
But two minutes after Abbassi, the on-call obstetrician, entered the delivery room, he told Turbin “I’m going to do the episiotomy now.” He was referring to a formerly routine, now formally discouraged practice in which an incision is made in the perineum, the region between the vagina and anus, often causing complications ranging from incontinence to sexual dysfunction.
In response to his declaration — the entire back-and-forth of which is audible in Turbin’s video (shot by her sister and edited to obscure everyone’s identity) — Turbin asked, “Why? We haven’t even tried.” The doctor then tells her, “You are pushing, baby’s head comes out and doesn’t come out because there’s no space here to come out, OK?” At this point the nurse and Kelly’s mother attempt to convince her that it’s the right decision, but still, Kelly says, “No, don’t cut me. No! Why?” The doctor responds with anger, “What do you mean ‘why?’ That’s my reason! I am the expert here, OK?” He then begins making audible snips, and doesn’t stop until he’s made 12 incisions.
Before the episiotomy, Turbin, who had been given an epidural and a sedative and placed into stirrups, had been pushing for just an hour.
“Consistent with her legal right to be informed about and consent to any proposed medical procedures, Ms. Turbin asked that the staff ask permission before touching her in any way and be gentle,” reads the official complaint, filed with the Superior Court of California for the County of Los Angeles. “Instead, Ms. Turbin was subjected to an egregious act of obstetric violence which was recorded on video.”
The complaint also alleges, “Dr. Abbassi knew that Ms. Turbin did not consent to the episiotomy. He noted in her medical records that ‘patient refused any surgical intervention’ but that he nonetheless performed the episiotomy under local anesthesia. Ms. Turbin’s medical records do not describe the occurrence of any emergency during her labor or delivery.”
Various doctors who reviewed Turbin’s case for Improving Birth concluded that the episiotomy was not only unnecessary, but done incorrectly and too early, not allowing the perineum enough time to stretch. “Her wishes are ignored and the clearly planned episiotomy is simply justified in advance so that the professionals can do what they planned to do anyhow…. It was all about the impatience of the professionals who were not remotely interested in the values and needs of the mother,” according to a report done for Improving Birth by Dr. Michael Klein, a Vancouver-based pediatrician and neonatologist who has researched episiotomies. “They just wanted the birth expedited. This is a picture that was often routine in the past, but since the early 1980s this approach cannot be justified, if it ever was.”
Improving Birth founder Dawn Thompson served Dr. Abbassi with the lawsuit on Wednesday, and recorded a video of herself talking about how she felt immediately afterward. “He said, ‘Oh great, somebody’s suing me?’ And I said, ‘Yes, your abuse of women stops here, today,’” Thompson says, her voice full of emotion, in the video posted to YouTube and the organization’s website (and which can be seen below). “Kimberly, this is for you, I so wish you were with me. Because that was so satisfying.”