The European Court of Human Rights gave judgment in Dubská v Czech Republic last week. The Court found that Czech legislation prohibiting midwives attendance at home births did not interfere with women’s right to private life under Article 8 of the European Convention.
The decision came as a surprise to maternity professionals and campaigners across Europe, who had welcomed the Court’s previous decision in Ternovszky v Hungary which enshrined an obligation on the state to respect women’s choice of place of birth. In the wake of recent advances in women’s reproductive rights (including the Court’s recent judgment in Konovalova v Russia), the Dubská judgment represents a regressive step in protection for women’s autonomy. The Court appeared to believe that it was safeguarding the safety of mothers and babies. The decision will achieve quite the reverse. Prohibiting midwives from attending women at home poses a grave threat to the health and well-being of women and babies.
Czech maternity care
Before analysing the decision, we first need to appreciate the context in which the case was brought. Maternity care in eastern Europe is provided almost exclusively in hospital. There are very few birth centres. The quality of care has been widely condemned by international organisations as disrespectful and over-medicalised, and the cause of serious physical and psychological harm to women and babies. The Court recorded “testimonies from numerous mothers” describing a plethora of human rights violations, including forced medical procedures, unnecessary separation of mother and baby and mandatory monitoring in hospital for 72 hours after birth. The medical staff were described as “arrogant, intimidating, disrespectful and patronising“.
In Hanzelkovi v Czech Republic, a judgment given by the Court on the same day as Dubská, the forcible return of a healthy baby to a Czech hospital for the mandatory 72 hour period post-birth was found to constitute a violation of Article 8. The Court in Dubská did not connect the dots: women faced with hospital care that violates their rights will seek alternative maternity care that safeguards their dignity. The law must support them in that choice.
Ms Dubská and Ms Krejzová
In 2011, two Czech women, Ms Dubská and Ms Krejzová, sought midwives to support them to give birth at home. Czech law regulating the provision of maternity care stipulates that intrapartum care can only be provided in a medical institution which has to meet minimum requirements relating to the provision of technical equipment. Providing care outside such a setting is unlawful. As the Court recognised, the law effectively amounted to a ban on midwives attending women at home.
Unable to obtain midwifery support at home, Ms Dubská gave birth alone without any professional assistance. As her decision to freebirth illustrates, women will continue to choose to exercise their basic reproductive autonomy and give birth outside medical institutions regardless of whether the state gives them its blessing.
Ms Krejzová gave birth at the closest hospital where she believed she could access respectful care. It was 140km away from her home. Even at this “respectful hospital”, her healthy child was separated from her at birth for routine monitoring despite her objections.
Ternovszky v Hungary
The question for the Court in Dubská was whether the Czech law prohibiting midwifery support at home constituted a lawful restriction on women’s right to private life. The answer to this question ought already to have been apparent from the decision of the Court in Ternovszky v Hungary. In that case the Court considered the Hungarian government’s failure to regulate home birth, which left midwives susceptible to disciplinary and criminal sanctions. The Court held that:
(i) Women’s decisions about childbirth were an expression of physical autonomy that were protected by the right to private life in Article 8.
(ii) Any legislation that dissuaded health professionals from attending a woman at home represented an interference with her private life.
(iii) Women were entitled to “a legal and institutional environment that enables their choice“.
(iv) Regulation of midwives was essential to ensure that women’s choices could be respected.
The only difference between Ternovszky and Dubská was that Hungarian law did not ban home birth, instead the lack of regulation made it effectively impossible. There is no doubt that if the Court in Ternovszky had been considering a legislative prohibition on midwifery assistance, it would have reached the same conclusion – the right to choose where to give birth requires legal and institutional support from the state. Without such support, the right is eviscerated.
Remarkably, the Court in Dubská made no effort to explain its departure from the reasoning in Ternovszky. The two cases were decided by different sections of the Court (Ternovszky by the second section, Dubská by the fifth) and none of the same judges were involved in the decision. The sections cannot overrule one another and their judgments ought to be informed by earlier decisions of the Court. The Dubská decision does not overrule Ternovszky, but the incoherence between them creates confusion and ambiguity. Dubská renders European state’s obligations towards pregnant women uncertain. In response to the decision in Ternovszky the Hungarian government has regulated to permit midwives to attend births outside hospital in certain circumstances. On the basis of the Dubská decision, would Hungary now be justified in reversing that regulation and banning home birth? The credibility of the European Court is undermined by inconsistencies like this.
Is banning home birth really about safety?
The Court in Dubská accepted that the prohibition on midwifery support at home birth pursued the legitimate aim of protecting the safety of mothers and babies. This assertion should have been more carefully scrutinised.
The dissenting judge, Judge Lemmens from Belgium, astutely pointed out that there is no prohibition on mothers from giving birth at home, only on midwives from assisting them. As he said: “I cannot understand how such a system, taken as a whole, can be seen as compatible with the stated aim of protection of the health of the mothers and their children.” If the aim of the Czech system is to protect health, and the government accepts that some women will choose to give birth at home (as Ms Dubská did), the system should enable the assistance of a midwife to ensure the safety of women and babies at home.
Why then would the state outlaw midwifery support for home birth? The answer is obvious to those who appreciate the history of professional rivalry between midwives and obstetricians and the role that eastern European governments have played in ensuring obstetric monopoly. Judge Lemmens summed it up:
“Without suggesting that health considerations are totally absent, I think that it is clear that other considerations also come into play. As in other countries, the issue of home births seems to be the object of a form of power struggle between doctors and midwives. … When the issue of home births came up for examination in 2012, the Ministry of Health set up an expert committee composed of representatives of care recipients, midwives, physicians’ associations, the Ministry itself, the Commissioner for Human Rights and public-health insurance companies. However, the representatives of the physicians’ associations boycotted the meeting, arguing that there was no need to change the existing legal framework. Subsequently, no doubt after some efficient lobbying, they managed to obtain from the Ministry that it removed from the committee the representatives of care recipients, midwives and the Commissioner for Human Rights, with the argument that only with the remaining composition would it be possible for the committee to agree on certain conclusions. I am not aware whether, once the committee had been cleansed, it was capable of making any suggestion at all. Having regard to the foregoing, I believe that the public-health argument put forward by the Government should not be overestimated.“
In its uncritical acceptance of the government’s “safety” argument, the Court failed to appreciate the risk that is created by refusing to support home birth. Women cannot be compelled to attend hospital. Some will decide to give birth at home without assistance, as Ms Dubská did. Thankfully, no harm came to her and her baby. If she had experienced complications during labour and she or her baby had died, wouldn’t the Czech state bear responsibility for failing to enable professional support to be provided to her during birth? It would certainly be arguable that the state would have breached its positive obligation under Article 2 to prevent foreseeable risk to life.
Far from safeguarding health, prohibiting trained, professional caregivers from attending women during birth displays a cavalier attitude to the safety of women and babies.
A curious feature of the Court’s decision is its conclusion on the risk of home birth. The parties presented the Court with the latest evidence on the safety of giving birth at home. As the Court accepted, the studies showed that for many women the home is a safe environment in which to give birth. More than that, the Birthplace Study (cited by the Court) showed that home is actually safer for multiparous women and their babies because it avoids the risks for the health of mother and baby created by unnecessary treatment in hospital. The modern conflation of safety with hospital-based care has been conclusively debunked by recent research, which shows that continuity of care throughout pregnancy and birth with a midwife who builds a relationship with the woman is by far the safest model of care. In the Czech context, giving birth at home with a trusted midwife offers women the chance to avoid the abusive treatment meted out by hospitals (Judge Villiger’s claim that home birth is merely about “comfort” suggests that he needs to meet a woman who has had her perineum forcibly cut).
Despite apparently appreciating that there is now a scientific consensus on the safety home birth, the Court raised the spectre of “unexpected difficulties” that could occur at home (“acute lack of oxygen supply to the foetus or profuse bleedings, or events which require specialised medical intervention, such as a caesarean section or the need to put a newborn on neonatal assistance“). They had been told of these difficulties by a Czech obstetrician, who gave oral evidence to the Court during the hearing. The purpose of the large-scale studies cited by the Court is to objectively examine whether or not unexpected difficulties that arise during birth at home in fact lead to maternal or neo-natal injury or death. The conclusion that home birth is safe takes into account these unexpected difficulties and as the studies show, they do not lead to greater incidence of neonatal morbidity than birth in hospital. The Cochrane Review on Planned Hospital Birth Versus Planned Home Birth (made available to the court, but not cited by it) considered the incidence of unforeseen complications at home birth in depth, concluding that the risks of complications in low-risk pregnancies were fractional (equivalent to the risk of being killed in a traffic accident during any one year), many such complications could in fact be managed at home and medical interventions could themselves lead to complications during birth that could cause injury and death to mother and baby.
In its focus on the potential complications, the Court fell into the age-old mistake of preferring a personal account (by a doctor implicated in the “power struggle” described by Judge Lemmens) over tested evidence of risk.
The Court accepted that the Czech prohibition interfered with women’s right to choose where to give birth. The real question was whether the interference was “necessary in a democratic society” – was it justified? In answering this question, the Court chose to invoke “the margin of appreciation”. This doctrine offers the Court a means of respecting individual state’s decision-making when a case raises particularly sensitive political or social issues (it has been used to avoid determining abortion rights case, for example). The Court surveys European practice and determines whether or not there is a European consensus on an issue. (It did not do this in Ternovszky because it determined that the lack of regulation violated the principle of legality, which is not subject to the margin of appreciation.)
In Dubská, the Court set out practice of 32 states in the Council of Europe (relying on material presented by the parties, which omitted a number of states, including Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Portugal and Bulgaria). It noted that “Only in a handful of States can a health professional face a sanction for the simple fact of having assisted with a planned home birth (Croatia, Lithuania and Ukraine).” The other states listed by the Court either expressly regulate home birth, are on the verge of doing so, or tolerate it without imposing sanctions on midwives. The Czech system belonged in the handful of states that sanction midwives who attend out of hospital births. On the Court’s own analysis, the Czech system is an outlier. But most importantly, the Czech Supreme Court had itself suggested that the Czech prohibition violated Article 8 in its judgment quashing criminal charges brought against a home birth midwife. It is troubling to see the margin of appreciation being used to adopt a more restrictive view of human rights than the court of the respondent state.
The Court concluded that in light of the public health concerns of the Czech government, and the “unexpected difficulties” of home birth, expecting Czech women to give birth in hospital did not cause them to bear “a disproportionate and excessive burden“. The language of excessive burden is more commonly used in cases involving the right to property and expropriation of land by the state. It is peculiar to see it deployed in a case such at this, which involves fundamental rights to physical autonomy and integrity. The Court’s conclusion is also dubious in light of the facts of Ms Dubská and Ms Krejzová cases. Giving birth alone and travelling 140km to give birth in hospital seem like considerable burdens to bear, to say nothing of the burdens borne by Czech women who are subjected to the catalogue of degrading procedures practiced in Czech maternity hospitals.
What next for reproductive rights in the European Court?
All is not lost! There are several other cases from other eastern European states that are awaiting determination. Kosaite-Cypiene v Lithuania will be decided by the second section, the same section that determined the Ternovszky case. In the meantime, the Dubska judgment will be appealed to the Grand Chamber. There is no guarantee that the Grand Chamber will choose to hear the appeal, but the general importance of the issue, the inconsistency with Ternovszky, and the upcoming cases from other countries, all suggest that there is a good chance that the appeal will be heard. If it is, the Grand Chamber will face a choice: to support women’s right to choose where they give birth and in so doing to safeguard their health, or to condemn them to choose between the risks of a hospital birth or the risks of birthing alone.
Elizabeth Prochaska, Birthrights