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A letter to the President

I’ve never been one for protesting, for signing petitions, for writing letters of complaint. Yes, I can bitch and moan with the best of them, but I have this irrational fear of having my name on a list of watchables. I say irrational, because in all likelihood it’s due to nothing more than an overindulgence in Cold War books and movies and a rather fertile imagination. I have no problem writing about stuff that bothers me, or speaking up about things I think unfair, but in my mind, large crowds are at the mercy of the state police and petitions are a matter of public record. Both bring out the heebie jeebies in me. Irrational, I know.

Seven years ago, back in 2010, I first wrote about Dr Ágnes Geréb. Dr Geréb had been

…recently arrested and [was] facing charges for reckless endangerment committed during the line of duty, […] An experienced doctor and midwife, she has attended more than 2000 home births (i.e. not in a hospital). […] Dr Geréb had a patient whom she had advised not to choose home birth as the patient had some sort of blood clotting disorder. During a scheduled prenatal appointment, the patient suddenly went into labour and the baby was delivered – apparently there was no time to get her to the hospital. When born, the baby had breathing difficulties. Ambulance staff called to the scene began resuscitation and took the baby to hospital. Dr Geréb was subsequently questioned, arrested, and taken into custody.

Two years later, in 2012, I wrote again. This time, adding my voice to the international call for clemency for Dr Geréb.

On February 10th, 2012, the Budapest Appeal Court announced the verdict in the case of Dr. Ágnés Geréb (an OB/Gyn as well as a midwife) and four other Hungarian midwives. The terms of Ágnes Geréb’s sentence of two-year imprisonment were tightened, a ban on practising doubled to ten years.

The ruling was put on hold while the clemency petition ran its course. In 2015, I shared an appeal for funds from her Campaign. With an update.

Arrested and imprisoned without trial five years ago for practising midwifery, Dr Geréb was later released to house arrest in December 2010 where she remained until February last year. Imagine not being able to leave the confines of your house for years. I go stir-crazy if I can’t leave for three days! In 2014, the conditions of her house arrest were relaxed a little so while she can travel in and around Budapest, she can’t venture much further afield. A prison as beautiful as Budapest is still a prison if you can’t leave.

The appeal process continued and hope that Dr Geréb would soon be free of all this was mounting. And then came the news this week. Yesterday, 9 January, a Budapest court ruled that an original lower court verdict of February 2012 against Dr Geréb would stand: 2 years in prison and a 10-year suspension from doing what she does best – helping mothers in their choice to give birth at home. No more appeals are possible. The sentence will come into effect within weeks. In the coming days, Dr Geréb will have to decide whether to go down the clemency route again – for a second time – or go to jail. These are her only options. Enough, already, I say.

Freedom for Birth and other mothers’ rights activists are in shock today, as the news spreads throughout the global community of Dr Geréb’s supporters. Calls have been made to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards) and write to President János Áder, asking him to step up to the plate as the head of a European State, and put an end to this.

I’m not a mother. I have no clue what it’s like to have kids.  But I’m a great fan of choice. Last time, more than 6000 people from all over the world  signed a petition for clemency, recalling that it is the ability to choose that makes us human. This time, even more signatures are needed. More voices need to be heard. I’ve penned my letter to the President voicing my outrage and asking him to do his bit to end this debacle. I’ve received notification from his office that it is being processed. I’ll live with my irrational fear that I’m now on a watchlist as it’s an infinitesimal price to pay to add my voice to the outrage.

Ágnes Geréb does not belong in jail. She should be out assisting those women who have chosen to give birth at home. She should be out facilitating a Hungarian woman’s right to choose.

 

2016 Grateful 40

Back in January 2009, having moved into a newly refurbished flat that was no where near as finished as I’d hoped it to be, I had forsaken my right to call the landlord when something went wrong. I was the landlord.

Far from the near ecstasy I’d expected, I was feeling a little blah. Somehow I’d thought that being a property owner came with a newfound sense of maturity, an entry into the adulthood that had so far escaped me. But I felt no different.

I wasn’t depressed. I’ve suffered from depression and I don’t use the term lightly. It was more of a general WTF feeling. The anticlimax of reaching a goal, realising that life hadn’t changed all that much, and wondering what next.

I was in contact with a number of people around the world who were following my move to Budapest with some interest. Back then, I wrote real letters. I’d spend an afternoon in a bar over a few pints, penning away on my foolscap pages (lined, of course) and then braving the post office. Someone mentioned blogging. Explained that I could write and post and let people know what was going on. If they wanted to read, they would read. And it would give me something to do.

So I started.

On Friday, I posted my 1000th post. Hard to believe. What began as an account of my renovation/refurnishing morphed into a travel blog peppered with random reviews, a grateful series, and some general commentary on stuff. It’s fascinating to see what catches people’s attention. My most popular post-in-a-day with 407 hits in just one day began like this:

Down3I fell completely, madly, hopelessly in love today. I’d met him before, briefly, a couple of years ago, and while mildly taken with him then, it was nothing compared to what I experienced today. A drop in the ocean. A grain of rice in a paddy field. A grape in a vineyard. Today, I fell hook, line, and sinker. He’s cute. He’s blonde. He’s constantly smiling. And he’s two.

[Update: Finn now has a lovely little sister and is still making the world smile.]

My piece on Ágnes Gereb got more than 1100 hits…

While the rest of us have been busy getting on with our lives, most likely taking our freedom and ability to travel from A to B completely for granted, Dr Ágnes Geréb is still in detention, of sorts. Can it really be five years since I first wrote about her? Yes. I checked the dates. My piece published in the Budapest Times on 25 October 2010. And that’s as good as five years ago.

[Update: Ágnes is still battling for that same freedom the rest of us take for granted.]

One of the most read posts, with close on 700  curious to know more, also involved people. It began:

IMG_0341 (800x600)I love a good speech. And I love a good wedding. And it doesn’t get much better when you have both together. One of the lucky ones who got to see the gorgeous Dora Nyiregyhazki marry the equally gorgeous  Edward Quinlan in Budapest yesterday, I was struck, not for the first time, by the wonder that is marriage.

[Update: Mr and Mrs Quinlan are still poster children for the institution of marriage.]

A piece on migrants in Hungary also got a lot of attention:

refugees_walk_beside_motorwayHungary has made the news in Ireland. When I was there last week it seemed like all anyone was talking about was the migration situation. Pictures of Keleti train station. Pictures of Szeged. Pictures of the fence. Pictures of families sitting, waiting for an uncertain future. The one overriding question asked of me was “Is it as bad as they say?” And the only answer to that is no. It’s worse.

[Update: Syrian refugees (and many others) as still fleeing to Europe and Europe is still dithering about what to do.]

Given the month that’s in it, and in memory of the man who never failed to make me laugh, I can’t not mention Ronnie (RIP).

IMG_3375 (600x800)Each year, for the last four years, Ronnie Thompson would come to Budapest in March. The Londoner visited at other times, too, but it was his March visits that I best remember. Ronnie wouldn’t have won any prizes for being the tallest chap in the room, but he made up for it by being larger than life itself when he headed up the annual St Patrick’s Day parade in the city. Ronnie was our mascot – our leprechaun – our piece of magic that made the day special.

[Update: Ronnie was spoken of fondly at the recent St Patrick’s Day parade and was missed by many. Hope he was having a dram or three upstairs as he looked down on the shenanigans.]

All human interest. All stuff I like to write about. But I have a varied audience. Some are regular readers, some dip in and out, some save and catch up in bulk. When I travel, I write for a core few who, for whatever reason, don’t get to move around as much as they used to. And while those posts may not rack up the numbers, they’re even more important … to me. They’re my postcards, my letters from abroad, my way of staying in touch with people I’ve met along the way. People who have contributed to making me the person I am today. For better or worse 🙂

Thank you for reading.

Five years later

While the rest of us have been busy getting on with our lives, most likely taking our freedom and ability to travel from A to B completely for granted, Dr Ágnes Geréb is still in detention, of sorts. Can it really be five years since I first wrote about her? Yes. I checked the dates. My piece published in the Budapest Times on 25 October 2010. And that’s as good as five years ago.

Arrested and imprisoned without trial five years ago for practising midwifery, Dr Geréb was later released to house arrest in December 2010 where she remained until February last year. Imagine not being able to leave the confines of your house for years. I go stir-crazy if I can’t leave for three days! In 2014, the conditions of her house arrest were relaxed a little so while she can travel in and around Budapest, she can’t venture much further afield. A prison as beautiful as Budapest is still a prison if you can’t leave.

As with all things newsworthy, the story soon faded. A band of committed supporters (both local and international) have kept the candle lighting and now they’re raising funds to pay legal and medical expert fees relating to Dr Geréb’s court cases. All contributions are welcomed at http://legalfunddragnesgereb.net. The sum ‒ less than €12 000 ‒ is paltry when compared to the hundreds of thousands if not millions spent on court cases worldwide. But for someone who has effectively been barred from earning a living as a doctor, as a midwife, or as a psychologist (she is qualified to practise each), it may as well be millions rather than thousands.

For those of you who need a reminder: Dr Geréb had a patient whom she had advised not to choose home birth because of a pre-existing health condition. During a scheduled prenatal appointment, the patient suddenly went into labour and the baby was delivered – apparently there was no time to get her to the hospital. When born, the baby had breathing difficulties. Ambulance staff called to the scene began resuscitation and took the baby to hospital. Dr Geréb was subsequently questioned, arrested, and taken into custody.  Today, she is fighting a series of additional charges issued after her arrest around birth incidents which pre-date that fateful October night, all of them wrongly placed in a criminal court and all of them still unresolved as she staunchly defends her innocence and her reputation.

Dr Geréb is an internationally acknowledged midwife and a defender of the rights of mothers to control the circumstances of their baby’s birth. Surely the right of a woman to choose how and where she delivers her child is a basic one. For those who argue that home birth puts the life of the child at more risk than a hospital birth, one only has to look to statistics to see how tenuous that argument is. For those who still argue that the state is not responsible for facilitating the choice of home delivery, then they should remember the Ternovsky ruling of 2010 which obliged the Hungarian government to do exactly that.

I am not a mother. I have never given birth. I can’t say whether I’d prefer to be in a hospital or at home should the occasion arise. I simply do not know. But I do know that I’d like the choice. And it’s women like Dr Geréb, professionals who stand tall in the eyes of the thousands of parents in Hungary whose children were born at her hands, who make that choice possible.  Let’s remember what she stands for. Let’s remember what she’s going through. Let’s remember to donate.

First published in the Budapest Times 23 October 2015

Clemency and choice

Some people took issue with me regarding a piece I wrote for the Budapest Times a while ago. It had to do with choice – and a woman’s right to choose.

Dr Ágnés Geréb was since arrested, tried, convicted, and is now in prison. Somewhat ironically, what she was imprisioned for has now been legalised so technically her crime is no longer a crime.

The situation:  On February 10th, 2012, the Budapest Appeal Court announced the verdict in the case of Dr. Ágnes Geréb (an OB/Gyn as well as a midwife) and four other Hungarian midwives. The terms of Ágnes Geréb’s sentence of two-year imprisonment were tightened, a ban on practicing doubled to ten years.

No less than full clemency is needed (although, one wonders, in the absence of a President, who would grant a presidential pardon?) Dr Geréb is a pioneer, to be championed not incarcerated. She was the first in Hungary to let fathers into the labor ward, allowing families to experience the miracle of birth together. She assisted several thousand normal births without complications, and facilitated the beginning of numerous happy lives.

So far, more than 6000 people from all over the world have signed a petition for clemency. Remember, it is the ability to choose that makes us human. Not one given to putting my name to anything without due thought and consideration, Ágnés Geréb does not belong in jail. She should be out assisting those women who have chosen to give birth at home She should be out facilitating a Hungarian woman’s right to choose.

A matter of choice

It is the ability to choose which makes us human. These simple words are often attributed to American novelist Madeleine L’Engel, who died in 2007, two months shy of her 90th birthday. She lived through the roaring twenties, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Second World War. Her mid-thirties coincided with the golden age of the 1950s when colour TV was invented, Disneyland opened, and a vaccine was discovered for polio. She was around during the Viet Nam war, the decade of hippies, drugs, protests and rock and roll. The far out seventies brought with them Star Trek and the Jonestown massacre, while the eighties welcomed Glasnost, Perestroika and the fall of the Berlin wall. L’Engel would have read about the end of the Cold War and the release of Nelson Mandela in the 1990s and seen news accounts of the Oklahoma bombing and the Columbine massacre. And as she entered the new millennium, she probably had ample time to think about choice… and to come to this conclusion.

Bringing it home

Dr Ágnés Geréb might well have something to say on the subject of choice. Recently arrested and facing charges for reckless endangerment committed during the line of duty, Dr Geréb has spent her career making choices.

An experienced doctor and midwife, she has attended more than 2000 home births (i.e. not in a hospital). As I understand the current situation, Dr Geréb had a patient whom she had advised not to choose home birth as the patient had some sort of blood clotting disorder. During a scheduled prenatal appointment, the patient suddenly went into labour and the baby was delivered – apparently there was no time to get her to the hospital. When born, the baby had breathing difficulties. Ambulance staff called to the scene began resuscitation and took the baby to hospital. Dr Geréb was subsequently questioned, arrested, and taken into custody.

Dr Geréb was elected to the Askhoka Fellowship in 1997 in recognition of the work she is doing in Hungary with her ‘undisturbed’ birth project. She established the first network of midwives, doulas (mothers experienced in childbirth who provide continuous physical, emotional, and informational support to the mother before, during, and just after childbirth), nurses, and doctors who oversee home birth throughout the country. On 6 June 1998, Dr Geréb won an important legal victory in the area of hospital births: mothers giving birth in hospitals could now request that their friends and relatives be allowed into the birthing room. Her foundation ‘Alternatal’ ensures professional help for those who choose to give birth at home.  She is, in other words, offering women a choice, a choice that is apparently denied them by the state. Or is it?

Personalising the experience

Had L’Engel and Geréb had a chance to sit down and talk about choice, about how human it makes us, I wonder what the outcome might have been? I’m not an expert on the merits of home birth, or any sort of birth for that matter. Thankfully, I can’t claim first-hand experience of the Hungarian medical system. What I am concerned about is the basic right to choose. Pregnancy is not an illness. The right for a woman to choose where to have her baby is surely a basic human right, one recognised the world over. Were I a soon-to-be mother, I would want to deliver my child in a familiar environment; with my family present; with the help of a midwife and a doula. The alternative (unless I had the financial wherewithal to pay for a private hospital) is a state-run, sterile, impersonal environment. I don’t doubt for a minute that there are doctors and nurses out there who genuinely care about their patients; whose commitment to their job isn’t measured by their meagre salaries; who see the birthing experience as something more than just another medical procedure. And I’m sure that for every horror story emanating from maternity wards around the country, there is a glowing report of an equally wonderful experience.  This isn’t about competency; it’s about choice.

In many western countries, such as the UK or Germany, home birth is a legal and respected option; an integral part of the healthcare sytem. In Hungary, it is alegal.  Under Hungarian law, a woman has the right to choose where to give birth. So what’s the problem then? Well, the law makes no provisions for anybody assisting the woman with her home birth; doctors and nurses who choose to help run the risk of being prosecuted for misusing their license; independent midwives may be prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license. So the danger of prosecution is really on the helpers, not on the birthing woman herself…as we’ve seen with Dr Geréb. A woman can choose to give birth at home. Those who choose to assist her show their humanity, and for that, they pay a price.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 October 2010