Resetting Privacy Expectations

February 3, 2011 • Commentary
This article appeared on The New York Times (Online) on February 3, 2011.

The question of whether hospitals should bar cameras during birth is very interesting, but it’s also typical. Changing technologies and evolving privacy values are upending information practices throughout society. No expert can answer all the information questions that arise in hospitals, homes, workplaces, public facilities, on social networks, and elsewhere online.

Many things have changed in the 130 years since the first privacy lawsuit in U.S. history dealt with an invasion of privacy during childbirth in the case of De May v. Roberts. But one thing hasn’t: expectant mothers rightly want to control the environment during a very special moment in their families’ lives.

In the De May case, a new mother sued because she had not been informed that a man attending her child’s birth was unmarried and untrained in medicine. Had she known, she wouldn’t have permitted his presence, so her lawsuit for invasion of privacy was successful. The case would probably come out the same today, but technology and social mores have changed.

Today, some women resent rules that bar photography and videography during childbirth. This prevents them sharing the full experience with a wider circle of family and friends. In many communities, the birth process and women’s bodies are less shrouded by taboo or shame, and childbirth is fundamentally precious. So why not allow recording?

But other interests are at stake. Amateur filmmakers can interfere with mother and baby’s care. Doctors and hospitals worry that digital recordings may misrepresent what happened during a birth, exposing them to undue liability. (The other side says the camera never lies.) Obstetricians and others assisting a birth have privacy interests and may not want to star in someone’s home movies.

How this plays out will depend on how the varied interests reset privacy and publicity expectations in the hospital on baby’s birthday — just like every day, and everywhere, in this new information era.

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