The Times gets it wrong: midwifery is safe and women’s birth decisions are not a ‘fad’

A journalist called me recently asking for a quote for a story he was writing about maternity care. He told me that he was going to expose the dangers of giving birth in midwifery-led units where, he claimed, more babies came to harm than in obstetric facilities. He could not respond to my request for evidence to support his claim. And of course, there isn’t any, because all the research, including large government-funded studies in the UK and abroad, show that giving birth in a midwifery-led unit is safer for healthy women and their babies than giving birth in obstetric units (see the Cochrane review for a summary).

But the journalist was merely giving voice to a persistent demonification of midwives that is based not on evidence, but on centuries of mistrust, professional turfwars and, ultimately, fear of women’s labouring bodies. Midwives, those purveyors of female knowledge, burnt at the stake as witches in early modern Europe, have transmogriphied into modern incompetents who cost the NHS millions in litigation.

The latest incarnation of this trend towards midwife-blaming came in yesterday’s Times editorial (paywall). Commenting on a Leicester University study into stillbirth rates in the UK, it claimed that ‘the roots of the problem are inadequate monitoring before birth, inadequate Times editorialinvestigation after it and a faddish bias in favour of midwife-led “natural” maternity care.’

Antenatal monitoring can be fatally haphazard, but as the Times itself reported last year, stillbirth rates are falling following improvements in standarised antenatal growth measurements. The Times’ suggestion that independent inquiries should be conducted after a stillbirth is a useful one and would help prevent the obfuscation and cover-up that parents experience too often in the NHS. The idea that fetal electronic monitoring, ‘resisted by natural childbirth advocates‘, offers a wonder solution to stillbirth is sadly misguided. If only a technology were capable of preventing death. As NICE has concluded, the use of electronic fetal monitoring is guided by the imperatives of litigation rather than by any clinical evidence that it improves birth outcomes for babies.

But it is the notion of a ‘faddish bias’ for midwife-led care that must be most vigorously challenged. As the evidence I cited to the journalist shows, midwifery-led care is safe. In fact, research shows that the safest form of maternity care is one-to-one care provided by the same midwife throughout pregnancy and birth. The reason is obvious: a midwife who provides continuous care for a woman will know her well and will be in a much better position to appreciate any problems that may arise and follow-up if they do.

Evidence aside, it is profoundly demeaning to suggest that the decisions a woman makes about how to give birth are a ‘fad’. Inevitably, all birth choices are shaped by cultural norms, but that makes them no less an expression of an individual’s fundamental human right to physical autonomy. At Birthrights, we hear from women who want to give birth in every conceivable way – naturally, via elective c-section, without any medical assistance at all. None of these choices are ‘fads’. All of them represent the very real wishes of women who approach birth influenced by their own histories and perspectives. Belittling women’s childbirth decisions is just another form of discrimination that women encounter in daily life; it is another way to say that women are stupid and that they do not know best. As Baroness Hale put it in the recent Supreme Court case on consent in maternity care, ‘Gone are the days when it was thought that, on becoming pregnant, a woman lost, not only her capacity, but also her right to act as a genuinely autonomous human being.’

Elizabeth Prochaska, Birthrights

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