By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest, Hungary
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– A Hungarian court has upheld a two-year prison sentence against an internationally respected obstetrician and midwife who advocated for home births in Hungary after years of hardline childbirth policies in this conservative-ruled nation.
The Budapest Court of Appeals also barred Dr. Ágnes Geréb from practicing her profession for ten years, doubling the time-ban she received from a lower court and turned down a request for a retrial.
Dr. Geréb, 65, was detained in October 2010 when police raided a home where a woman was in labor. She was detained, and in February 2012 an appeals court sentenced her to two years imprisonment following accusations of negligence and manslaughter.
The court cited two cases including her involvement in assisting with the birth of twins, one of whom was born dead. In another, Dr. Geréb assisted in the birth of a baby who suffered severe complications and died six months later.
Dr. Geréb and her attorney later appealed for a retrial, citing newly submitted opinions by experts.
Her supporters also said she successfully helped deliver 3,500 babies at home, a far better track record than hospitals. In 2015, the infant mortality rate for Hungary was 4.5 deaths per thousand live births while Dr. Geréb confirmed 2.0 deaths per 3,500 newborns, much lower than the official national figures.
But Judge Gábor Lassó argued that the newly submitted information was insufficient to prove that the complications resulted from neonatal infection. “The extra appeal is rejected, and the result is that the original court decision is valid…including the two-year prison term, and you can not practice your profession for another ten years,” he explained in his ruling Tuesday, January 9.
Dr. Geréb condemned the verdict. “All my I life I was working to see that Hungarian women could give birth in more secure, more humane, and honorable circumstances. Again, the Hungarian court saw it from a different perspective,” she said in a reaction.
“The court accepted opinions opposite to our evidence without even consulting medical literature. The court validated opinions of gynecologists who are doing their work only for gratitude money.”
Dr. Geréb told BosNewsLife that she started to attend births outside the hospital “at the end of the 1980s when Hungarian society was busy dismantling at all levels the previously oppressive Soviet-system.”
Following the collapse of Communism here, “there was a growing social need for home birth,” she said in a statement. However that need “could not suddenly be acknowledged when for decades the money-based medical system denied the professional truths which I was representing,” Dr. Geréb added. “The trials and criminal proceedings against me are the outcomes of this conflict.”
When Dr. Geréb appealed to Hungary’s incumbent President János Áder for clemency, he said he would not decide before legal proceedings were over.
Dr. Geréb suggested that authorities and hospitals wanted to keep Hungary’s controversial hospital system in place where pregnant women are expected to give “gratitude money” worth hundreds of dollars to doctors, though the national health insurance covers births. “The solution to this irreconcilable controversy was to force me aside by making me the” black sheep” of home birth,” she said.
Her defense lawyer, Gyula Kreisz, agrees. “It would be right if the higher court had changed the original verdict. My client is not responsible for these serious charges [of negligence and man slaughter] which were based on the doctors’ subjective opinions.”
Not all Hungarians share that opinion. Ildi Kékesi is an outspoken 24-year-old bartender in Budapest. She told BosNewsLife that she opposes home births. “This is a kind of situation when the main priority is safety,” Kékesi said.
“Probably it is more comfortable and it gives more pleasure to give birth at home. But if, and if, something happens you have to be in a hospital where there are machines and more doctors and nurses. They can help to save your life or the life of your baby. That is more important than comfort,” added Kékesi who plans to have children.
She agrees to the two-year prison term handed out by the court but also says that Dr. Geréb should not be prevented from practicing her profession for a decade. “That is too harsh.”
In 2011, Hungary’s self-proclaimed “pro-life” and “conservative” government decided to allow home births in certain cases but under strict safety conditions. The law was enforced the next year, noted Dr. Geréb. “After a long time, the Hungarian state has finally recognized that giving birth outside the institution has equal merit with giving birth within the institution,” she said.
The expert agrees that giving birth is “definitely a challenging” experience. “It is in society’s interest not to associate it with humiliation and trauma. Home birth mothers have helped in making institutional birth more humane,” she added.
But it will take time before Hungary will embrace home births the same way as in the Netherlands. Some 30 percent of Dutch women give birth at home while some 60 percent do so in the hospital, mostly for medical reasons, and another 10 percent deliver in special out-patient birthing clinics. The figure has been stable since 1990, according to the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, more than any other Western nation.
However, “If my work has also assisted in creating a fairer and more humane system [in Hungary] then this long, difficult period, this witch-hunt that I have endured, did have some positive result,” Dr. Geréb concluded. (BosNewsLife’s Special Correspondent and Researcher Tamas S. Kiss contributed to the story).