Consent and the problem of epistemic injustice in obstetric care

Journal of Medical Ethics 49 (9):618-619 (2023)
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Abstract

An episiotomy is ‘an intrapartum procedure that involves an incision to enlarge the vaginal orifice,’1 and is primarily justified as a way to prevent higher degrees of perineal trauma or to facilitate a faster birth in cases of suspected fetal distress. Yet the effectiveness of episiotomies is controversial, and many professional bodies recommend against the routine use of episiotomies. In any case, unconsented episiotomies are alarmingly common, and some care providers in obstetric settings often fail to see consent as necessary in context. In their article, ‘The ethics of consent during labour and birth: episiotomies,’ van der Pijl et al reiterate that consent is necessary for episiotomies. They specify, further, that the antenatal period is crucial for exchanging information, establishing trust between the birthing subject and provider, and exploring the birthing subject’s—rather than the care provider’s—values and preferences regarding episiotomies. They recommend an individualised approach, which would enable birthing subjects to choose how and when they want to give consent. I applaud van der Pijl et al on their practicable recommendations regarding consent for episiotomies. This is certainly a step in the right direction where respect for birthing subjects’ bodily autonomy and integrity is concerned. Still, we must be reminded that consent alone is not coextensive with autonomy. The conditions for securing informed consent in healthcare does not guarantee that one’s decision is truly reflective of their values. After all, even valid consent does not rule out ‘normatively significant external influence’.2 Consent acquisition for obstetric procedures present no …

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