When the police ring Dr Agnes Géreb’s doorbell, late on a Thursday night, she quickly hunches forward on her sofa in an instinctive gesture of self-protection. Then, with infinite tiredness, she shuffles to the front door. A police officer impatiently demands her signature and disappears into the darkness.
Saturday will be the 494th day of Géreb’s house arrest in Budapest. For the past 16 months, the midwife and internationally recognised home-birth expert has been confined to her home for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Officers arrive unannounced, at any hour of the day or night, to check that Géreb, 59, is home. If not, she can expect to return to the prison where she spent 77 days in 2010, accused of negligent malpractice after a woman went into early labour in her birthing centre.
In five days’ time, Géreb will be taken back to prison after losing an appeal against her original sentence of two years’ imprisonment (with a specification that she serve a minimum of a year) and five years’ suspension from practising as either a doctor or midwife. The minimum time she must serve has been increased to 16 months and the ban doubled to 10 years.
The Guardian is the first and last newspaper she has allowed into her home before returning to jail. She cannot bear to examine her feelings too closely.
“Please don’t ask me any more,” she says at one point. “Please can we stop? I’m going to cry.”
Géreb’s crime is to have spent the past 17 years quietly resisting Hungary’s attempts to criminalise home births. Against a background of escalating police harassment and abuse, Géreb helped deliver 3,500 babies at home, one of whom died some 14 months after a difficult labour, another as a result of shoulder dystocia (when the head has been born but one of the shoulders becomes stuck behind the mother’s pelvic bone). A third infant died seven months after suffering a lack of oxygen at birth.
According to the World Health Organisation, Hungary’s early neonatal mortality rate (babies aged 0-6 days) is five deaths in every 1,000 live births. By this measure, Géreb could have expected to see 17 or 18 babies – not three – die during her almost two decades as an independent midwife.
But because the government refuses to regulate independent midwives in Hungary, these cases triggered a criminal investigation and Géreb was found guilty of manslaughter, negligent malpractice and two other charges involving common obstetric occurrences.
Géreb’s supporters petitioned against the rulings but in February the appeal court increased her sentence and the ban on practising as a midwife. Prosecutors are now preparing a second tranche of four similar cases. If successful, these will see Géreb’s sentence increased yet again.
The parents of the babies involved, with the exception of one couple, stand by Géreb. Andrea Vagyok’s son died in 2003. She explained why she went on to have three more children delivered by the woman whom she affectionately calls Agi.
“Agi made no mistakes that night,” she says. “There are times in life when you are in the hands of God and can do no more.”
Vagyok is, she says, horrified that the death of her baby is being used against Géreb. “I don’t understand why Agi is being persecuted,” she says. “We are prepared to go to the president and ask him to grant her clemency.”
Géreb’s supporters – including the Royal College of Midwives, the International Confederation of Midwives, and the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics – say she has been singled out for punishment because of her dedication to the home-birthing cause.
They are going to the European court of human rights on Géreb’s behalf, but the process is expected to take years. In the meantime, there are serious concerns about whether the increasingly fragile mother of four can survive more time in a prison system criticised in a 2010 UNHCR report as inhumane and degrading.
Donal Kerry, international spokesman for the campaign to free Géreb, says that the midwife is being punished because, while the Hungarian constitution upholds the right of women to give birth at home, until last month it remained an offence for any licensed medical professional to help a woman do so.
Nick Thorpe, the BBC’s central Europe correspondent, whose five sons were delivered at home by Géreb, says that her trial remains a “complete failure of the Hungarian justice system”.
Neither Hungarian midwives nor international experts were allowed to testify on Géreb’s actions, he argues. Instead, the court relied on Hungarian maternity doctors: professionals who not only have no direct experience of home births but who officially maintain the statistically unproven position that home births are more dangerous that hospital deliveries.
Now, he says, “everything balances on a knife-edge”.
“Will the new president have the wisdom and the bravery to correct a serious miscarriage of justice, and stand up for human rights and women’s rights?” he asks.
Géreb is bleak about her chances of a presidential reprieve. “Optimistic?” she asks. “After almost two years’ imprisonment?”
[Woman behind bars via Makushin Alexey / Shutterstock]