This is the first article in a series responding to questions Birthrights receives from women and healthcare professionals. If you have a question you’d like answered, please get in touch.
Birthrights is regularly asked whether women are legally entitled to a cesarean section. The question is asked both by women who seek an elective c-section and by healthcare professionals who wish to understand their obligations towards women who choose c-sections.
While women have no statutory entitlement to any particular type of maternity care in the UK, the decisions of healthcare professionals about the care that they give to women must be lawful. That means decisions must be taken in accordance with the general principles of the law, and where the care is provided by the NHS, that includes the principles of public and human rights law.
It goes without saying that a decision not to perform a c-section where it is clinically necessary to avoid harm to mother or child could lead to a retrospective claim for damages for clinical negligence. Where there is a threat to the life of mother or child, hospitals and individual clinicians are obliged to take steps to save life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, enacted in UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998. But these are not the concerns of mothers who request a c-section when there is no immediate clinical necessity for the operation.
Women have a right to make choices about the circumstances in which they give birth. This simple but powerful principle was established by the European Court of Human Rights in Ternovszky v Hungary (2010) under the right to private life in Article 8 of the European Convention which encompasses rights to physical autonomy and integrity. Article 8 is a ‘qualified right’ and so limitations on the right are permitted. The Ternovszky case concerned the right to give birth at home, but the principle applies equally to all choices that women make about childbirth. The decision represents a profound challenge to medical authority: if women have a legal right to make a choice, any limitation on that right must be justified. The decision-maker, whether a hospital or a doctor or midwife, must give proportionate reasons for their decision based on the individual circumstances of the woman and their reasons can be tested in court before a judge.
To take the experiences of a number of women who have contacted Birthrights recently, if a women requests a c-section after a previous traumatic vaginal birth and explains to her midwife and obstetrician that she is afraid of giving birth vaginally again, the reasons given to her for refusing to offer a c-section can be scrutinised and balanced against her reasons for requesting a c-section. A court has not considered this sort of case before (and it seems unlikely that a case would reach court given the cost of litigation versus the much lower cost of simply providing the surgery), but a judge would undoubtedly take into account the serious effects of refusing the operation on the mother alongside obstetric risk as assessed by the doctor and, potentially, the financial cost of a c-section.
Some cases would be stronger than others. As recent research by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists revealed, in some UK hospitals women have a 40% chance of an emergency c-section after an induction. If a woman requests a c-section in order to avoid the induction process and the high odds of an emergency c-section or instrumental birth, and consequent potential trauma, a decision to refuse to perform the operation might be hard to justify. (And, of course, a failure to explain the likelihood of a c-section in these circumstances disables the woman’s ability to make an informed choice and casts doubt on her consent to the induction.)
We are often asked whether NICE guidelines have legal force to compel a doctor to provide a c-section. The NICE guideline on elective c-sections without a clinical indication states that women ought to be offered a c-section after discussion and an offer of mental health support. NICE guidelines are not legally binding on medical professionals. However, where a decision is made to depart form a guideline, reasons need to be given and exceptions considered in each individual case.