The story of Ashoka Fellow Agnes Gereb is the story of homebirthing in modern Hungary. A story that shows how Hungary, since its return to full independence in 1990, continues to restrict free choice of its citizens in the hugely important area of childbirth. From the all- powerful Board of Obstetricians down to the local police, the Hungarian state has continually tried to force expectant mothers and their partners to give birth in hospital. But there have always been couples determined to choose their own way to birth and who needed to find someone who could help them fulfill their wishes. Agnes Gereb took on that role when, after seventeen years of hospital service, she decided in 1991 to become an independent midwife. She was prepared to face the risk of heavy fines and imprisonment to help parents to satisfy their desire to have their babies at home.
Despite this hostile legal climate, a few intrepid midwives have been continuing to offer their services, knowing full well the risk of “being caught.” And Agnes Gereb has taken on the public fight for home birth in Hungary. Now, nearly 20 years later and with over 3,500 healthy homebirths behind her, she still encounters incredible resistance within the Hungarian establishment to home birthing. She has been threatened and her medical license (she is an obstetrician) has been stripped from her and then returned to her several times over. She has faced charges of practicing medicine without a license, reckless endangerment, and is even facing charges of manslaughter associated with the death of a six-month-old (!) baby. Her court trial has been fraught with “irregularities” with key parts of testimony mysteriously disappearing. Even before Tuesday’s detention, she and 4 colleague midwives are currently before the courts facing further serious criminal charges. Like all other independent midwives and the parents of homebirth babies, she is continually exposed to levels of harassment and intimidation from police, ambulance and hospital staff whenever a homebirth delivery has to transfer to the hospital system.
Her arrest was the logical climax of a campaign of vilification and criminalization which has last nearly twenty years and which is rooted in the determination of a clique of obstetricians to maintain their own power and earning potential from hospital birth. Obstetrics is one of the most lucrative branches of Hungary's supposedly free healthcare system, in which parents expect to pay up to a month's salary to the doctor who, according to law, must be present at each birth.
Also, Agnes Gereb's work is not restricted to homebirth as she has long represented the opposite end to the over-medicalised, over-interventionist practice of hospital birth. Her work proves that it is possible for midwives to take over the doctor's role, in Hungary, as the main health-care professional at birth.
Agnes was dramatically taken into police custody in the evening of Tuesday, 5 October just minutes after attending to a pregnant woman who had unexpectedly gone into labour at her homebirth centre in Budapest. The mother had to be urgently transferred by ambulance to hospital with her baby boy when he displayed serious breathing difficulties immediately after birth. The police arrested Dr. Gereb and held her for 72 hours with access only to her lawyer. After the 72 hours in detention, she was taken before a closed criminal court and charged with ”reckless endangerment committed in the line of duty” and remanded in custody without bail for a further 30 days. It is quite common in Hungary to spend more than a year in prison, awaiting trial.
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