Cruelty in Maternity Wards

From Sheila Stubbs, author of “Birthing the Easy Way”:

I bought a copy of a 1958 Ladies Home Journal on eBay last week. This magazine contains an article called Cruelty in Maternity Wards that had an enormous impact on women and began the movement to allow husbands into maternity wards.

A bit of history: An anonymous letter from someone who signed herself ‘Registered Nurse’ was published in which she begged the editor to ‘investigate the tortures that go on in modern delivery rooms.’ ‘You of the JOURNAL have long been a champion of women’s rights.’ she wrote, ‘[Exposing] this type of medical practice would go a long way to aid child-bearing women.’ What resulted from that letter was such a flood of letters from angry women that the JOURNAL did a full article revealing the reality of what women had experienced in hospitals. This was peppered with comments from an obstetrician who AGREED that the treatment had been cruel, and also comments from frustrated nurses who hated what they saw happening but would lose their jobs if they spoke up.

Here are some of the things women complained about in May 1958: ‘They give you drugs, whether you want them or not, and strap you down like an animal”. ”I’ve seen patients with no skin on their wrists from fighting the straps”. “My baby arrived after I had lain on the table in delivery position nearly four hours.” When I asked why I couldn’t be put into a bed the nurse told me to quit bothering her so much. ”with leather cuffs strapped around my wrists and legs, I was left alone for nearly eight hours, until the actual delivery” My doctor had not arrived and the nurses held my legs together. She was born while he was washing his hands. I do not believe the treatment I received was intentionally cruel – just hospital routine’.

From a nurse: So often a delivery seems to be ‘job-centered’ – that is, get the job done the easiest, quickest way possible with no thought to the patient’s feelings. In too many cases doctors and nurses lose sight of their primary concern – the patient. ”I remember screaming… [the nurse] ignored me. … the doctor said at one point, ‘Stop your crying at me. I’m not the one who made you pregnant!’ My third baby will be born at home, despite the sterile advantages of a hospital confinement; for I feel the accompanying emotional disadvantages are just not worth it.”

From a nurse: ‘I have heard such unthinking remarks as ‘You had your fun, now you can suffer’ made by a nurse to a mother in great distress, damaging the spiritual nature of the childbirth experience and showing the nurse’s ignorance of the sacramental nature of sex in marriage.” “I reached the point where I wouldn’t have been surprised if the man who was washing the windows had suddenly laid down his sponge and come over to ‘take a peek.’ It seemed that everyone else connected with the hospital was doing it!” “I know of many instances of cruelty, stupidity and harm done to mothers by obstetricians who are callous or completely indifferent to the welfare of their patients. …Obstetricians today are businessmen who run baby factories. Modern painkillers and methods are used for the convenience of the doctor, not to spare the mother. There is so much that can be done to make childbirth the easy natural thing it should be, but most of the time the mother is terrified, unhappy, and foiled in every attempt to follow her own wishes about having the baby or breast feeding…”

Doesn’t that sound like it could have been written TODAY instead of FIFTY TWO YEARS AGO!! What do you say they get a flood of letters TODAY, marking the 52nd anniversary of this article! Let’s tell them that we still see Cruelty in Maternity Wards, it’s just taken a different form!

their website:

Sheila Stubbs

From: Gloria Lemay to the Ladies Home Journal

Dear Women:

I was an 11 year old girl in 1958 when you published the article “Cruelty in the Maternity Wards”. I only know about the article that was published back then because I hear about it from time to time in my job as a Midwifery Teacher.

I think it’s time that this subject was investigated thoroughly again. Women are giving birth in the worst obstetrical time in history. Major abdominal surgery is the fate of 30% of childbearing women in North America. Cesarean section has lasting effects on women’s health and sexual lives. Modern hospitals are more factory-like than ever before. Even very well educated, well armed women find it impossible to “strike a deal” to get a decent hospital birth. Childbirth educators must tell women that going to a hospital and expecting an inspiring birth is like going to MacDonald’s and ordering a steak. No matter how you wheel and deal, MacDonald’s will never prepare a steak for you, right? Unfortunately, too many women find out too late that the system is rigged against them.

I met a woman who was so influenced by your 1958 article that she gave birth all alone to her third baby in a small Canadian town. It was her most satisfying, fulfilling birth experience. That daughter grew up and gave birth at home to her two babies with the assistance of a midwife. Your publication makes a difference in women’s lives. It would be wonderful to see a new expose of the sad state of American obstetrics.

Gloria Lemay, Vancouver BC Canada

Advisory Board Member International Cesarean Awareness Network (ICAN)

Write your letter to the Ladies Home Journal (owned by Meredith Corp.) and send it to:

25 thoughts on “Cruelty in Maternity Wards

  1. Gloria… Wow! This was written probably 5 or 6 months before I was born that year. I think this is just stop-me-dead-in-my-tracks important stuff. Thank you so much for sharing.

    As a new doula trainer for Birth Arts International, I’d love to share this with my students. May I print this out?

    I’ll also be sharing the link to this on facebook. I’m just blown away.

    Thank you, thank you for sharing. It’s VERY important to me since that was the year I was born.

  2. If you want to get a copy of the original article, I think the first place to start is your local public library. Sometimes they can search these things down.

    There are copies for sale on E Bay for $12 if you want to purchase it.


  3. I totally disagree with you Gloria. I think that the hospital setting for birth has completely changed. I think that more and more women are educated about birth and understand that they have choices and are allowed to make them. I think that you apply horror tactics to the idea of hospital birth in order to support yourself and give yourself more credit.

    Instead of casting such a negative vision of women who choose hospital birth, and the care providers who work with them in the hospital, it would be more powerful and supportive to try and educate and support those registered nurses and care providers about understanding the womens birth experience. Education is power.

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  5. Gail, thanks for your comment. Have you looked at the cesarean and induction statistics in the U.S. and Canada recently? Birth is safe, interference is risky. Gloria

  6. Gail, I’ve been slipped drugs while unable to consent, been physically held down while I tried to push, been threatened with having my perfectly healthy baby taken by force, been left lying in my own urine for an hour. This was 2002, 2003, and 2004. I’ve heard stories of women having episiotomies cut while they were in the middle of saying, “Don’t cut me.” And what about news reports of mothers having court-ordered c-sections?

    While I am thrilled to have found a supportive OB for this pregnancy, and fully intend to have a hospital birth, I’m inclined to agree with Gloria that many hospitals and doctors are, in fact, practicing cruelty in the maternity wards.

  7. In response to Gail:
    Have you attended many hospital births lately?
    It is too bad you could not have been present at my hospital birth at Chilliwack General in Feb.2008.
    If you had witnessed the abuse and trauma that was forcefully and purposefully inflicted upon me by the so- called -“health care professionals” you would eat your words.
    And yes,I am an educated and responsible woman.Like Michelle,I,too,have had drugs given to me in an IV without my knowlege or consent.Birth plans are not worth the paper they are written on.Trust me!!! Gloria is right.You will never be able to have an empowering birth when you submit to the red tape and bureaucratic BS in the Canadian Hospital System.
    By the way,when you complain/and/or voice concern,it is all covered up with lies and then stated that “standards of care were met”
    If this is the standard of care woman can expect to receive when going to a hospital to give birth,they had better run the other way…and fast!!

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  9. Given this ugly background, routine neonatal circumcision without any local anesthesia is less surprising.

    I was especially moved to read this:

    ‘I have heard such unthinking remarks as ‘You had your fun, now you can suffer’ made by a nurse to a mother in great distress, damaging the spiritual nature of the childbirth experience and showing the nurse’s ignorance of the sacramental nature of sex in marriage.’’

    When a man is callous and brutal to a woman, that is despicable, but not totally surprising. Often such men behave in the same way to other men. But that a woman could talk like that to another woman leaves me staring at a stark possibility: some women have a Dark Side.

  10. Well, I’m in central California. I believe the cesarean rate is 37%. The epidural rate is 90%. I had my 6 children in hospitals or clinics, but I sought care providers who would respect my wishes. In the early 80s this town had ABC rooms in hospitals. And we devolved to this sad state. Hospitals are big business and have to run like one. There isn’t a lot of room for individuality or choice. After the LHJ article and the 60s “natural” hippy movement where everything in society was questioned, birth changed. What/who made it change was the consumers. Women HAVE a voice and they can rock the world when they use it. It’s needed again to change the unhealthy way women and babies are being treated at such a time in their life. I’m sure we’ve all heard truly awful things said in maternity wards. No excuse! We have seen some positive change in our neck of the woods, and I credit the doulas for helping to bring that about, and L&D nurses who are open to their help and influence. The cesarean rate in this country is criminal. A national study of CPMs and out-of-hospital birth showed a 3% cesarean rate among midwives. (correct me if I have this wrong) If that’s possible, then the questions begs to be asked: What’s happening in hospitals to warrant 1/3 and higher percentage of sections?

  11. I’m definitely running the other way! After the deplorable treatment of the nurse and a completely indifferent OB, I’m giving birth at home, whether I have a midwife or not. I refuse to set foot in the L&D after having a catheter shoved in and being insulted by the nurse who jammed it in, insisting that it “couldn’t be that painful, stop exxagerating!” An OB who made sure to tell me AFTER the fact, what the risks were to my c-section and delighted in telling me how I will never have a vaginal birth again. I was grossly ignored when I tried to ask about the risks and benefits to the c-section the OB insisted on. I have since filed a complaint, not that I expect anything from it, but I’m glad I spoke up.
    Hospital birth for baby #4? Thanks, but NO THANKS!

  12. I will give this comment about British Columbia’s hospital system. Obviously I’m speaking about B.C. Canada. I had my son in the hospital and sadly my family has been and still is poor. Luckily I’m not poor anymore but at the time I was. Being on income assistance adds to the issue. I went into the maternity ward, in a lot of pain. The nurse told me I wasn’t dilated enough, while telling me that broke my water with her nail!! extremely painful way of inducing a labor and completely uncalled for. Sadly if that wasn’t bad enough, they did so much more. After forcing labor to happen sooner ignore my need for medication. I wanted medication because of the pain I was in. They told me my doctor wasn’t there so they couldn’t do anything. He showed up but still waited, said I wasn’t far enough along. Once I was “far enough” he said I was too far of course I screamed based on how painful it was and I couldn’t handle it. He then gave me an epidural. Yeah I don’t have the same doctor anymore. Of course after I gave birth he left immediately checked my son for a few seconds and boom gone. I noticed my son had a few issues that I had when I was a baby. He was and still is lactose intolerant, as I am. I tried telling the nurses he was puking up everything I gave him, they ignored me. They told me it was just spit up, No spit up smells like stomach acid. My ex-partner was and still is a complete idiot and I left him after his so called “help” in the hospital. He allowed four of his friends to hang out in my room while I was trying to rest. My sister also had friends in my room while I was trying to rest, right after giving birth. I haven’t spoken to my sister or my ex-partner because of their actions they’ve done. Nor me or my son had much sleep while in the hospital, no one helped me or respected the state I was in. I lost my son because the lack of help. The nurses also hurt my son and myself by shoving him into my breast to try breast feeding. Once he refused because of the abuse she took him away into the nursery and told me I wasn’t allowed to see him. Social workers came in and said I was allowed to see him but I didn’t. I was also told I wasn’t allowed to cry because they apprehended my son based on biased, lying and bad nurses. Also sadly my lack of support made things harder and worse. I did stick with the visitations but once my son turned 1 and 1/2 I was blackmailed into giving up custody. Now I still don’t have my son and feel grief everyday. I can’t visit him which was court ordered because my son lives with his father’s dad, who blackmailed me and hates me because I’m a women. My current husband is pissed about what happened to me and hates my ex partner because he isn’t allowed to visit his step-son. My ex partner doesn’t even know my husband and he states he doesn’t want strange men around my son. My husband I’ve been with for a year, how is he considered strange? I’m married to him! I’m on my second kid now, no social workers involved and so much more support. I may not have support from my own family but my husbands family loves me as a family member. My family is messed up, my sister lost all her kids because her partner is a criminal and my mom never speaks up because of the abuse she received as a child and as an adult from my father and many others. So yeah no support in my family it’s dysfunctional. I live with my husband and his family and I could never be happier and healthier. I left most of my family behind, except my mother I’ve been pulling her away from my sister and father who constantly abuse her. So my mom’s lack of support doubled to me and Now with my daughter on the way I’m very stressed and worried. Luckily this time I have a loving, caring and very supported husband. I know he’ll help me more than anyone and he’ll help his daughter.

    • This happened in 2008 and still happens in that hospital. Much more happened after the hospital situation but it was that situation that started it all.

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  14. Another website is

    The silent majority of mothers and grandmothers need to come forward to make this issue a current Human Rights violations to both the birthing mothers, of the past, and a threat to them currently, as well as to their babies being exploited for their properties of deprived whole placenta blood.
    If any are interested to be an active participant of no informed consent and having their bodies humiliated and violated and that of their babies robbed of wholesome placenta blood volume, please, call me, at 1-250-782-9223, or if you are of economic distress, call me toll free, 1-877-782-9223.
    The doctors are organized, the hospital and the labs seeking the deprived placenta blood are organized, the politicians are organized, the licensing of the medical professional groups are organized, which includes, surgeons, the local physicians, the firemen, policemen, and medics and the 9-1-1 ambulance dispatcher (as to false training in emergency manauals), the provincial trained midwives, doulas, and the registered nurses, and the licensed professional nurses, are all organized, and may fear for their positions so they are silent, too. The women planning a family are not organized. The women pregnant today are not organized. They have organizations against them and the defense is that the care in the maternity ward is excused as being between the woman and her care provider. But that care provider is not giving the woman full or all and complete truthful information of her legal rights. Such would be to have a signed contract (not an idealistic birth plan), that the baby may remain without taking a drop of blood from the umbilical cord or the placenta, a sealed unit, that I call a biological, reciprocal and sealed unit. This is primal and natural birth rights that no organization of medical private societies may actually deprive the woman if she knows her legal rights. It is the secrets and the oaths of the secret of the medical arts and crafts that deceive the women, yet to give birth.
    So, how-about-it ladies? Are you ready to come forward in a Human Rights Complaint, and the failure to document how much blood was deprived any one of your babies, for an unnecessary cosmetic removal of the umbilical cord and the placenta from your baby or babies. Think about it. We cannot do anything until we oranize and file a Human Rights Complaints. I’m ready as a grandmother, are you?
    I am a birth reviewer since 1998, a mother of two children and grandmother of two grandchildren. We were all violated of no true informed consent. While we had living children they were violated by not knowing we could have had their baby’s blood tested and found evidence of assault and battery to their being caused medical anemia. That is low red cell count, low white cell count, low platelet count, and low volume of plasma. The comparison would be to the quality and quantity of the deprived blood trapped in the placenta and some in the umbilical cord. This is the evidence the doctors did as they pleased stating that they had wisdom when the cord was clamped off, while the cord was red, firm, and pulsating; and the placenta was yet in the womb. They were knowingly the tools to share the baby’s blood trapped in the placenta with the lab technicians, who were not allowed to document from each placenta from each child born in that hospital, how much blood they received,and what they did with it. Generally, it is called a waste product, and it is sold to each suspensions the hospital’s lab extracts from their centrifugal machinery. Even viruses can be sold, and hormones and enzymes, per the sex of the child.
    The local and regional policies make the medical policies above the law, but this is not true. They all can be charged of a human rights violations of seeking benefits of the whole blood that rightfully and naturally belonged inside the baby.
    Stem cells were being sought from the baby’s adult placenta blood, long before the 1980’s, and likely prior to 1939.
    So, ladies, it is time to stand up and come forward, united we stand, devided we continue to be exploited to give our babies blood, we nutured in the womb, in the baby’s private property, the placenta, to a evil society of manipulating politicians, that need to have their day in court. That includes the Senators appointed in each province and the territories. They must be identified of stealing the baby’s blood by false protocols set by private organized medical groups using false international human experiments that claimed, falsely, depriving the natural placenta blood infusion into the baby’s lungs was good for the baby. Nonsense. I hope you, the reader, will come forward, please.

  15. Thank you for this, Gloria, this history and its continued traumas, including the pushing of drugs, inductions, and all around interference deserve to be exposed and renounced for the sexual violence. The maternity wards should really be called “Assault & Delivery” wards, in the vast majority of hospitals, to this very day.

    My grandmother was an L& D nurse and in her old age was just sick of the horrors she had to witness in the 60s and 70s – she had grown up attending homebirths with her mother, who was a traditional, occasional midwife. My grandmother entered hospital work and nursing training due to economic necessity, in a time when there wasn’t even the possibility of her being a community midwife.

    Robbie Pfeuffer Kahn, in her book “The Language of Birth” did a wonderful expose on the sexual abuses protected by the patriarchal OB-GYN gang culture, and how it is embedded in practice protocols as well as the words used and how women themselves talk about pregnancy and birth. Highly recommended reading…

    Myself, well, I’ve also been traumatized as a professional labor companion to encounter how some male OBs create pain & torture with rough exams and disrespectful attitudes, or through influencing a women to expect an induction or surgical extraction of her child. I’ve also seen how wards in more conventional religious hospitals, filled with female staff still entrenched in 1950s attitudes, tend to also be severe in their attempt to disconnect birth from the female body and its sexuality.

    The infantilization of women begins in how girls are socialized, via society’s belief in the hierarchy of gender, which entrains girls to behave with compliance. Gender is brutal, and it is not what female power is about. Most indigenous peoples raised their young without any gendering -and puberty was celebrated as the birth body’s biological perfection, without odd beliefs about compliance vs dominance, silence vs. outspoken…

    The root of this is that civilization, or at least individual mothers, need to change the way our girls are raised. Girls need to be able occupy their natural bodies and voices, and its ferality and wildness. But many adult-created cultural beliefs affect them early, nowadays even in the womb, with so many people buying in to the ultrasound sex determination of their babies, because they have not questioned the brutality of gender upon our young children.

    • It would not be Assault and Delivery. My lawyer informed me it was Battery and Lack of Informed Consent, Assault would have been the American charge back in 1985 with my first delivery. There 3 doctors present, (no men except my husband). I have learned that women can be just as damaging, or worse. The OB is still practising out of country and the resident has a family practice in Vancouver. The nurse kept repeating “It’s God’s will for you to suffer” during the contractions.

  16. When I went to the hospital to give birth, I was treated as though I had no rights at all, I was told a flat no about any birthing position except on my back, had a fetal monitor roughly shoved into my stomach during a painful contraction, despite telling the nurse to stop. I felt coerced into allowing my waters broken, receiving an IV, and getting an epidural by the doctor saying that if I didn’t my child could die, I had lost a child before and the doctor knew this and I felt used this knowledge to force me to do as he said. I wanted to think about the epidural and I feel because I did not immediately agree I was punished, they said I must wait until the anesthesiologist arrived from home, once they arrived I had to receive two bags of fluid, they waited a bit changing they bags, then didn’t come for a while when the final bag was finished. They asked my support to leave but my mother refused to leave, she held me up while the epidural was done four times to no avail. They didn’t tell me that it hadn’t worked even though they knew. When my child crowned my legs were forced together for over 10 minutes by a nurse causing extreme pain and pressure, until the doctor appeared then, began casually speaking with my mother, not even starting to put his gloves on. Soon after he got into position he demanded that I push, I asked for a second because the pain was too intense, he ordered the nurses on either side of my feet to grab my ankles and shove my knees into my chest. I completely lost control and simultaneously screamed no, locked my legs at the knee and pushed so hard I tore myself almost all the way through to my rectum. He yelled at me to stop making all that noise and that he had told me to give a little push, and on the next contraction when my baby came flying out he caught him only by the head. The doctor continued to chastise me through sewing me up and immediately leaving. I am emotionally traumatized more than I can possibly express, I am pregnant again and would literally rather give birth at home than ever step foot into a hospital again.

  17. “Predictors of psychological trauma resulting from childbirth include a history of sexual assault, feelings of powerlessness, negative interactions with medical staff, failure to meet expectations, medical interventions, and unplanned cesarean surgery (Soet, Brack, & Dilorio, 2003), although trauma can also occur in spontaneous vaginal births (Soderquist, Wijma, & Wijma, 2002). Given the ubiquity of these experiences, it should not be surprising that sizeable percentages of women experience psychological trauma following childbirth.”

  18. After a horrible first birth with an abusive doctor in 1994 and 2 later hospital births ,which were not quite as bad, but still less than satisfactory, I discovered homebirth. My husband and I are looking forward to our 4th homebirth in October. While we do use CPMs for our births, we had decided this time around that if no midwife was available that we would birth unassisted. It would have to be a dire emergency, before I would ever consent to letting a doctor within a 100 feet of me while in labor ever again. I’m surprised and saddened to see that things are still as bad as they were in the 90’s I would have thought things would have improved some by now.

  19. This definitely still goes on today. My first daughter’s birth was nothing less than traumatic for me. Myself being a 17 year old and in labour for 23 hours alone, and feeling extremely scared and unsupported ( my obstetrician was not present)
    , the nurses wanted me to have morphine to calm down – which I did not want – what I needed was support. So in turn they left the room and literally left me all by myself and said they would not return until I would take the drugs. I ended up taking the morphine because I had been threatened. I was just a scared kid without any sort of support present who was bullied into doing something I didn’t want to do. I didn’t feel a single bit of humanity or empathy from the nurses who cared for me that day.

  20. There is a major section missing here, that of the “unwed mother” and her experience giving birth, free, in a Catholic Hospital. When I began doing Foster Care I heard about additional trauma unwed teen mothers were exposed to during labor. Even when my neighbor did Foster Care of pregnant teens told me they reported being told “If you were married, giving birth would not hurt.” I did not truly believe until I heard these words repeated 10 years later, to my then 16 year old unwed teenager. I took my daughter to our local Catholic hospital when she went into labor and was experiencing contractions every 6 minutes, at 3:30 PM. She asked me to wait out in the hallway with the baby’s father. Hours went by, I kept checking on her and was told that she “was progressing.” As the hours went by my daughter became exhausted and asked often for some relief. I was infuriated when I heard the Catholic nurse tell my daughter that if she “were married labor would not hurt.” After midnight, (12:00 AM) I noticed that there seemed not to be any more nurses around, although my daughter was still in hard labor. At 2:00 AM I found an open office door and a hospital phone book.
    Using an in-house telephone I began calling the phone numbers, beginning with ones that might be related to the Maternity and Birthing departments. I finally got a phone answered, and it turned out to be in the Intern resting room. A wonderful male Intern listened to me, and then truly sent someone to us to check on my daughter. This doctor/intern, checked my daughter, with my permission gave her something to stop her labor and allow her to go to sleep, and then placed a phone call to her OBGYN. Turned out the OBGYN only worked days, beginning at 7:30 AM. The Intern told me that the baby was breech and my daughter would never have been able to complete a vaginal birth without the baby being turned. Also that it was too late to do a C-Section; that should have been done hours ago. We learned later that in turning the baby, the OBGYN had torn the uterus. Catholic Services prides itself on providing prenatal, birthing, and postnatal support to unwed mothers. They ask only that the pregnancy is not terminated and, preferably, that the birthing mother keep the baby. My daughter kept her baby, but complained often to the clinic that she had an infection. This was treated with medication for a yeast infection; it was not, and no testing was ever done. Catholic Services provides baby clothing, furniture, and other needs free to the mother. I continued with Foster Care, mostly getting children from 17 months old on up. The mothers, single, told me that as infants it is easy to get a babysitter. Once the baby begins to walk, this pool of free babysitters goes away. Sooner if the baby is a boy than if a girl. And any help from Catholic Services is also gone.

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