California Woman Charges Doctor With Assault & Battery For Forced Episiotomy

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Landmark case seeks to affirm fundamental legal, constitutional rights apply to women in pregnancy and childbirth 

Los Angeles, CA—(Press Release) Mother Kimberly Turbin (previously known as "Kelly" to protect her privacy) has filed a complaint with the Central District of the Los Angeles County Superior Court against her former obstetrician, Dr. Alex Abbassi, for forcibly cutting her with scissors 12 times (“episiotomy,” the cutting of the perineum between the vagina and the rectum, link) despite her explicit refusal to consent during the 2013 birth of her only child. Advocates served Dr. Abbassi with the lawsuit yesterday (June 3) (link to complaint).

“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,” said Ms. Turbin. “It took a lot of people to get this far, but this is the proof that you can do something.  This is a big step for women who have been silenced.”

Ms. Turbin is represented by prominent lawyer Mark Merin of Sacramento, who is widely known for his success in high-profile civil rights cases (link).  Mr. Merin stepped up to take the case after a year-and-a-half-long search for a lawyer, dozens of whom turned down Ms. Turbin’s case on the assumption that courts would not assign meaningful monetary value to the injuries she suffered.  “This is a historic action,” said Mr. Merin.  “Today, legal protections for American women in childbirth are uncertain—but with Ms. Turbin’s case, I intend to show that there are, indeed, real consequences when providers inflict harm on vulnerable patients.”

The alleged battery, which occurred at Providence Tarzana Medical Center in Tarzana, California, was caught on video by a family member and has been viewed on YouTube by hundreds of thousands of people, generating support and donations from around the world (link).  The incident involved the outdated use of episiotomy—vaginal cutting that has been discredited for decades as harmful to women and not beneficial to babies when performed routinely (link).  Despite the weight of medical evidence, episiotomy is still sometimes imposed on women without medical need and often without consent (link), apparently for provider convenience. Such treatment is characterized as obstetric violence, which has now been criminalized in a handful of other countries. 

Forced and coerced procedures are a normal part of institutionalized childbirth in many places, including the United States (link), where multiple organizations endorsed the World Health Organization’s recent call for an end to “disrespect and abuse” in childbirth (link), and where the well-documented overuse of risky medical procedures in childbirth poses health risks to women and babies (link).  Although the U.S. has the costliest maternity care system in the world, it ranks with or below many third-world countries in maternal and infant health outcomes, and suffers from widespread failures to respect women as autonomous decision-makers in childbirth (See legal brief here).  Mothers’ advocacy group Improving Birth, which has been assisting Ms. Turbin along with Human Rights in Childbirth and others, continues its fundraising efforts to cover the costs of the case, estimated to be as much as $50,000 (link).

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has also been notified of the claim pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act, as the defendant doctor appears to have been employed by federally supported health center El Proyecto Del Barrio at the time of the incident.

For more information on Kimberly Turbin’s story, see Caught on Video: Improving Birth Breaks the Silence on Abuse of Women in Maternity Care and We Will Not Be Silenced: An Update on Kelly’s Story.

For more information on the issue of respectful treatment in childbirth, see Rinat Dray is Not Alone (Hayes-Klein, 2015) USAid’s Exploring Evidence for Disrespect and Abuse in Facility-Based Childbirth (Bowser and Hill, 2010) and the World Health Organization’s Prevention and elimination of disrespect and abuse during childbirth (2014). 

Contact Cristen Pascucci, vice president, Improving Birth (443-622-2892 / cristenpascucci@gmail.com) for interviews, including with lawyers involved in the case and childbirth rights.

Improving Birth is a national 501(c)(3) consumer organization that advocates for respectful, evidence-based maternity care.

(Photo collage above from Facebook: ImprovingBirth.com #BreaktheSilence)