Dignity in childbirth: Us women’s perceptions of respect and autonomy in hospital births

Jessica Liddell, Katherine M. Johnson

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Purpose There is extensive research documenting the physical outcomes of childbirth, but significantly less on socio-psychological outcomes. Investigating women’s perception of dignified treatment during birth contributes to a salient, under-examined aspect of women’s childbirth experiences. Methodology/approach We use a two-part conceptualization of dignity, respect and autonomy, to understand how birth experiences and interactions either facilitate or undermine women’s perceived dignity. Data came from the Listening-to-Mothers I survey, the first nationally representative study of postpartum women in the United States (n = 1,406). Through linear regression analysis, we separately modeled women’s perception of respectful treatment and women’s perception of medical autonomy during birth. Findings Overall women reported high scores for both autonomy and respect. Differences between the models emerged related primarily to the role of interventions and provider support. While women’s perceived dignity is related to elements that she brings in to the delivery room (e.g., birth knowledge, health status), much variation was explained by the medical encounter itself (e.g., type of medical interventions, pain management, nurse support, and number of staff present). Research limitations/implications This study is cross-sectional, and required either a telephone or internet access, thus limiting the full generalizability of findings. Two findings have direct practical relevance for promoting women’s dignity in childbirth. First, the number of staff persons present during labor and birth was negatively associated with both respect and autonomy. Second, that women with high levels of knowledge about their legal rights during childbirth were more likely to report high scores on the dignity scale. Limiting staff in the delivery room and including knowledge of legal rights in childbirth education or during prenatal visits may be two mechanisms to promote dignity in birth. Originality/value These findings address an important, under-examined aspect of women’s childbirth experiences. This study investigates how different birth experiences and interactions either promote or violate childbearing women’s perception of dignity, and has significant implications for the provision of maternal healthcare. The results reinforce the importance of focusing on the socio-psychological dimensions of childbirth.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationResearch in the Sociology of Health Care
PublisherEmerald Group Publishing Ltd.
Number of pages22
StatePublished - 2018

Publication series

NameResearch in the Sociology of Health Care
ISSN (Print)0275-4959


  • Birth support
  • Childbirth interventions
  • Dignity
  • Psycho-social outcomes
  • Respect
  • Women’s autonomy


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