Talking about human rights in maternity care helps the wider human rights debate

“What have human rights got to do with pregnancy?”

“I wouldn’t have thought you have any rights – isn’t it about what’s best for the baby?”

“That’s not an issue in this country, surely?”

Before embarking on a project for Birthrights earlier this year, i decided to conduct my own straw poll of women – of mothers – I knew. I explained what Birthrights did and asked them what they thought. I was expecting questions, positive interest and challenges but it was these three responses that really got me thinking. Why is it so hard to connect human rights with something as ordinary and commonplace as pregnancy and childbirth?

I’ve been working for human rights and equality organisations for almost 15 years, including directing campaigns at the leading UK pressure group, Liberty, so I’ve seen and heard first-hand some of the biggest myths and misconceptions that exist around these issues. Part of the problem is that there isn’t – there has never been – enough public education from the Government about what human rights are and how they protect us. Human and rights might sound pretty self explanatory but once you get into the dry, legalistic territory of the European Convention and the Human Rights Act 1998 and you definitely don’t “have me at hello.”

When translated into straightforward language, the Human Rights Act is difficult not to love. Why wouldn’t you want a right to life, to speak freely, to practise your religion, to personal privacy and family life? What’s so bad about treating every human being equally, with fairness, dignity and respect? Why wouldn’t you want protection against discrimination, torture and inhumane treatment and arbitrary detention? But when you start to talk about ‘articles’, qualified and limited rights and about lawyers and courts you lose people’s interest. Most people are lucky enough to go through life without ever having to defend their rights in court and without having to hold the state to account, so why would they relate? And even when a hugely important human rights case, like that of the Hillsborough families, becomes front page news, it can be difficult for campaigners to communicate the link between justice and human rights. Add to this the regular attacks on human rights lawyers by some politicians and sections of the press and you have a toxic mix.

One of the biggest misconceptions is that human rights are only about lawyers and courts – that human rights make ‘fat cat’ lawyers richer and society poorer. But nothing could be further from the truth. The Human Rights Act means that you can defend your rights in UK courts and has brought justice and answers for many but it also means that public organisations, including the Government, the police and local councils, must treat everyone equally, with fairness, dignity and respect.  The Human Rights Act has helped thousands of people protect their rights without going to court.  It means that local authorities have had to review policies to make sure they treat the vulnerable respect and users of a wide range of public services have used the Act as a tool to argue for better and fairer services.

This is why what Birthrights does is such an important part of the puzzle. Their work is about defending the human rights of all childbearing women, with a particular focus on vulnerable groups such as asylum seeking and refugee women, disabled women, women in prison and women with other, complex, social needs, who are most in need. Their work raises the importance of providing respectful, personalised care for all women and the benefits of this for safer and better births. And their work highlights that respect for human rights is fundamental to all healthcare and the legal imperative to respect the autonomy and dignity of women, whether in relation to maternity care or to abortion rights.

Human rights protect us all but it is people who are most vulnerable who are in most need of protection against abuse. This inevitably leads to negative and misleading narratives about human rights and the way that the law is applied and this can be difficult to challenge in a way that is meaningful and persuasive for people who are otherwise, unconvinced. Campaigners must engage people in thinking about and looking at rights in a different way, through the lens of situations which are relatable. If this helps begin a conversation, we have more hope of increasing understanding and respect. If safety, equality, autonomy and dignity matters to one woman during pregnancy and birth, then why wouldn’t it matter to all women? If we can’t start life with these principles in mind, then where do we go from here?

Sabina Frediani is a campaigner and freelance writer. She spent over a decade working for the human rights and civil liberties pressure group, Liberty, where she directed award winning public and political campaigns, and has recently been helping Birthrights with our organisational strategy.

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