Dubska ECHR judgment: disappointing but not the last word

The Grand Chamber of the European Court gave judgment today in Dubska v Czech Republic. We wrote about the earlier decision of Court here. The Court reaffirmed that women’s rights in childbirth are protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, further underlining the human rights protections that childbearing women should enjoy.

But in a disappointing and poorly reasoned judgment, the Court found that the Czech government was not obliged to regulate midwives to enable them to attend women at home births, despite the significant negative impact this may have on the safety and wellbeing of childbearing women. The Court accepted that care in Czech maternity hospitals was ‘questionable’ and expected the Czech government to keep its law and practice under “constant review so as to ensure that they reflect medical and scientific developments whilst fully respecting women’s rights in the field of reproductive health”.

Five of the judges dissented, expressing a joint opinion that disagrees with the Grand Chamber’s judgment. These judges found that the Czech system effectively forces women to give birth in hospital and could not be justified by any public health argument. They noted the observations of the CEDAW Committee on disrespectful and abusive practices in Czech hospitals. As they said, citing the UK Supreme Court’s decision in the Montgomery case,  ‘Patronising attitudes among health personnel should not be taken lightly, as they may constitute a violation of an individual’s right to self-determination under the Convention.’

This judgment is a missed opportunity to offer appropriate, safe and rights-respecting choices to Czech women. Women giving birth in obstetric units in the Czech Republic face a range of unsafe and rights-violating practices, meaning that for some choosing to birth at home is the only way of avoiding degrading, painful, lonely and de-humanised care. Routine practices in these units include: separation from their babies, a lack of access to facilities that support physiological birth, no involvement in decisions about their care, routine episiotomy, lack of pain-relief options, giving birth without a partner unless they pay an additional fee. Without regulated and state-supported access to out-of-hospital birth it is likely that some women will now feel forced to give birth without medical assistance. When hospital births that undermine a woman’s basic human dignity are the only option, there are significant safety issues at stake.

For women in England the judgment has no impact on their right to choose where to give birth. Choice of place of birth is enshrined in policy and practice, and underpinned by the recent report of the National Maternity Review. But for women in eastern Europe this will create a significant bend in the road that activists, mothers and health care professionals will need to navigate with clarity and purpose to minimise the damage.

Thankfully the clamour for childbirth rights, and a shared understanding of how to promote them, is growing across Europe. More cases on abuse during childbirth will undoubtedly reach the Court and other recent ECHR judgements (such as Konovalova v Russia) still stand; robustly upholding women’s rights to make decisions about childbirth.

Given the forceful dissent, and the Court’s demand that the government keep pace with change, this is unlikely to be the last word on homebirth in the Czech Republic.

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