What are the responsibilities of midwives to care for women who have requested a home birth? And how can Trusts best support these responsibilities?
Midwives owe the women they care for a legal ‘duty of care’. They are obliged by the NMC Code to ‘put the interests of people using midwifery services first’ and to ‘make their care and safety [their] main concern’. Under human rights law, all Trusts and their employees are obliged to respect women’s decisions in childbirth and cannot compel a woman to receive care in a hospital.
If a woman has stated her preference for a home birth and informs the NHS Trust or home birth team that she is in labour, the woman can expect the midwife to attend her at home. Trusts that prevent midwives from attending a home birth for a woman under their care present their midwives with a difficult dilemma – to defy their employer and put the woman first, or obey their employer and neglect their duty of care. If a midwife does not attend a woman, and the woman or her baby die, there is a real risk that the Trust could have breached the right to life (Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights).
In recent weeks, a small number of Trust home birth policies have been brought to our attention, which have suggested that a home birth will only be offered if women agree to any interventions or examinations midwives propose, and in some cases that midwives should leave the labouring woman should their “offer” of an examination or intervention be declined. Legally speaking, women at home have as much right to decline an intervention or examination as in any other birth setting. And making a home birth conditional on this “agreement”, or threatening to leave constitutes bullying and it is very likely to be an unlawful interference in a woman’s right to make decisions in childbirth. If she were to consent to an intervention as a consequence of a threat to withdraw support for her home birth or abandon her care, her consent may not be valid, and the midwife could be liable for criminal assault/battery.
Some Trusts will argue that these policies are designed to protect their midwives from being put in a difficult position and a particular concern has been raised about situations where midwives are asked to wait outside the room while a woman is in labour. It is important to distinguish between a couple who asks for some time alone in labour, and asking a midwife to remain outside of the room for the duration of labour and birth and only be on hand in an emergency. If a woman makes the latter request, it may indicate a lack of trust for the midwife, which will not be assisted by a blanket policy prohibiting the midwife from providing care in those circumstances. Relationship building and individualised care planning are much more likely to lead to safe and positive outcomes.
Midwives are also under a duty not to exceed their scope of practice and their experience. Trusts should be open with women about any concerns they have about their staffs’ expertise to attend more complicated births, whether at home or in hospital. This conversation needs to be managed with sensitivity and while risks must be carefully explained and contextualised, the woman must not be threatened or pressured to accept any particular course of treatment.
Whilst dealing with a home birth that doesn’t go to plan can be stressful for the midwives involved, it is women who ultimately bear responsibility for their own informed decisions. Midwives who give women the best available evidence about a recommended course of action and any reasonable alternatives, document their explanation and discussion and then support a women’s informed decision to decline are upholding professional standards and their human rights obligations, and have nothing to fear from lawyers or regulators.
Finally, as NHS resources become more stretched, home birth services are too often cut back by Trusts. While Trusts may rely on staffing shortages for failing to send midwives to a home birth they should only do so if there is a genuine and unforeseen staffing shortage. If they are withdrawing the service on a regular basis, they can be expected to make alternative arrangements. In a recent case, the NHS Ombudsman accepted that an NHS Trust that refused to make contingency plans after it suspended its home birth services was acting unreasonably.
Trusts’ home birth policies should be based on respect for women’s informed decisions. Any policy that makes care conditional on acceptance of interventions, or threatens suspension of the service due to staffing shortages, does not respect women’s right to make informed decision, fails to put their interests first and risks their safety.
Our email advice service (firstname.lastname@example.org) is available to any woman who feels she is not receiving respectful maternity care and any healthcare professional who is concerned that they are being prevented from delivering respectful maternity care.