New Year’s Day saw the re-opening of the three Midwifery Led Units in Bridgnorth, Oswestry and Ludlow, which is great news for local women expecting a baby in 2018. A consultation expected to propose their permanent closure and replacement with community hubs is due to be published shortly. The response from Shropshire CCG to our letter of the 7th December can be found here.
It‘s been unusually noisy in the maternity world over the summer, as media reports have reignited discussion about what a “safe” birth looks like. At Birthrights we believe that the need to listen to women is the mast that all those who care about the safety of women and babies during birth, can cling to when the seas of discussion get rough.
Many women want to avoid unnecessary interventions in childbirth and, on the 15th August, Birthrights CEO Rebecca Schiller wrote about the vital role midwifery care plays in ensuring women who don’t need and want intervention have the best chance of avoiding it safely.
We have also been working hard to support a smaller but important group of women who feel a planned caesarean section is the right choice for them. We created our recent maternal request for caesarean campaign to ensure that these women’s voices were heard and to discover the barriers to their requests being granted.
In this blog post, our Trustee, midwife Simon Mehigan, shares his experience of working with women who want a caesarean for no medical reason, and why the approach of a number of Trusts to shut off this option from the outset, is counter-productive.
“A few years I was employed as a consultant midwife at a large teaching hospital in the Northwest of England. One of my responsibilities was to see all the women requesting a caesarean section in the absence of what was considered to be a medical reason.
Over the course of three years I saw over 500 women. I saw the majority of these women just once with a follow up either by email or by phone. Some I saw twice and for a small proportion I took over all of their care, as it was apparent that continuity would have a significant impact on their decision-making. Here’s what I learnt:
Saying no initially to a women’s request for an elective caesarean section creates an antagonistic starting point for discussion and doesn’t reduce the overall caesarean rate.
I very quickly discovered that by telling women very early on in my conversation with them that “if a caesarean section is ultimately what you want I will help arrange that for you”, that they relaxed, were prepared to listen to what I had to say and were receptive to discussing alternatives.
In fact having met me and discussed their options, 85% of women opted to aim for a vaginal birth of their own accord and over 70% of those women ended up having a vaginal birth.
A couple of women actually informed me after our consultation that because I had said I would support them in their request for a caesarean section that they no longer wanted one. Being told “no” by consultants had made them more determined to have a caesarean section because they were not prepared to let someone else make decisions about their birth.
A de-brief of their last birth often alters a women’s view.
A number of women didn’t understand what happened to them last time. Going through it with them, explaining why things might have happened often helped women in realising that things could be different in this new pregnancy and birth.
After 28 weeks it is more difficult to alter the view that caesarean section is the right choice
Many Trusts schedule these conversations for the last few weeks in pregnancy and yet what I experienced was a direct correlation between the gestation at which I met women for the first time and whether they would be open to explore options that might ultimately feel better to them than a caesarean section. The later I saw them the less likely they were to consider any other options.
The plans of care I developed in conjunction with the women often focused on having an uncomplicated birth with a low threshold for a caesarean section.
The majority of women I saw had had a previous traumatic birth experience. Common themes were a lack of control, lack of communication from staff and a negative experience of induction. Therefore the plans we made together often stated no induction of labour, no rotational forceps, minimal examinations and diverting to a caesarean rather than trying other interventions if the birth wasn’t completely straightforward
Once a decision had been made a line had to be drawn.
Women found it very stressful having to revisit their decision every time they met a health professional.
A caesarean is the right choice for some women.
I have over the years met many women that have felt a caesarean section was the right choice for them. They could all explain rationally why they wanted to birth their babies in that way.
By listening to them, talking to them as an equal and ensuring they felt in control of the process they not only developed confidence in their bodies but more importantly in their caregivers and the organisation irrespective of whether their final decision was to opt for a caesarean section.
In over 20 years as a midwife I have yet to meet a woman that has made irrational decisions or choices. They have always been the right choice for that women based on her individual circumstances.”
On 24th May we launched a campaign to engage with Trusts who state that they do not offer maternal request caesarean sections, thereby denying women the individual respect and consideration they are entitled to. The first Trust we wrote to was Oxford University Hospitals whose policy on offering planned caesarean sections is stated in this leaflet:
OUH responded to our original letter stating that their approach was in full compliance with NICE guidelines, and that they offered a “kind, friendly and professional service”. Unfortunately the reports we have received of women not being listened too, being left shaken by consultations, and being left distressed and anxious knowing that their request for a caesarean section would not be granted by OUH, are at odds with OUH’s account. Therefore, this week, we wrote again to the Trust, their Commissioners, Healthwatch Oxfordshire and the CQC, to share some of your stories and to urge them to reconsider their approach. If you would like to tell us about your experience or requesting a maternal request caesarean section at OUH or elsewhere, please comment below…
We’re really pleased to announce that we have not only updated our own set of factsheets, but have partnered with Mumsnet, to update our answers to their most frequently asked questions about rights relating to pregnancy and birth.
You can find Mumsnet users’ questions and our answers here. Ranging from common concerns about the right to an epidural or a homebirth, to more specific questions about water birth and antenatal check-ups our work with Mumsnet helps us to give definitive answers to millions of women.
We’ve grateful once again to the team at Mumsnet HQ for the chance to speak directly to so many women directly affected by these issues.
Mumsnet is the UK’s largest network for parents, with over 10.5 million unique visitors per month clocking up over 100 million page views. It has 170 local sites and a network of 10,000 bloggers and vloggers. It regularly campaigns on issues including support for families of children with special educational needs, improvements in miscarriage care and freedom of speech on the internet.
Birthrights is very excited to be expanding our small team. Are you highly organised? Have experience of running a busy (virtual) office? Then you could be our new administrator! You will be the key to ensuring our organisation runs smoothly as our work continues to grow at pace. The role is part-time (22.5 hours), flexible and home-based. Closing date for applications is the 23rd June, with interviews in mid-July. Download the job description here for more details.
Three and a half years after the original publication of this article, the right to choose a caesarean section remains one of the most common enquiries we receive at Birthrights.
Today we are launching a campaign asking you to help us identify Trusts who have a public policy of not offering caesareans unless there is a medical indication, contrary to NICE guidance and their duties under human rights law.
NHS Trusts are under pressure to reduce their caesarean section rate and there are good public health reasons for this. However in their quest to meet targets some Trusts appear to be abandoning their duty to consider cases on an individual basis and to act in accordance with NICE guidelines unless they have good, necessary and proportionate reasons. Any blanket policy not to offer elective caesareans without a medical reason is unlikely to be lawful and the fallout is felt by the very small percentage of women who, even with support, feel incredibly distressed about the idea of a vaginal birth. The reasons cited by women trying to access caesareans for non-medical reasons include physical damage from a previous vaginal birth, extreme fear of childbirth, emotional trauma after a previously difficult birth or experience of sexual violence or other violent trauma.
Birthrights wants to hold to account Trusts that do not give women the individual consideration and respect they are entitled to, and we need your help. Have you been denied a caesarean yourself? Do you know if a Trust that states publicly that it does not offer elective caesareans for no medical reason? Then do email us today at email@example.com so that we can write to that Trust and explain to them their obligations under human rights law.
This article explains a woman’s rights to choose an elective caesarean:
A human rights-centred approach
Birthrights is regularly asked whether women are legally entitled to a cesarean section. The question is asked both by women who seek an elective c-section and by healthcare professionals who wish to understand their obligations towards women who choose c-sections.
While women have no statutory entitlement to any particular type of maternity care in the UK, the decisions of healthcare professionals about the care that they give to women must be lawful. That means decisions must be taken in accordance with the general principles of the law, and where the care is provided by the NHS, that includes the principles of public and human rights law.
It goes without saying that a decision not to perform a c-section where it is clinically necessary to avoid harm to mother or child could lead to a retrospective claim for damages for clinical negligence. Where there is a threat to the life of mother or child, hospitals and individual clinicians are obliged to take steps to save life under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, enacted in UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998. But these are not the concerns of mothers who request a c-section when there is no immediate clinical necessity for the operation.
The right to an informed choice
Women have a right to make choices about the circumstances in which they give birth. This simple but powerful principle was established by the European Court of Human Rights in Ternovszky v Hungary (2010) under the right to private life in Article 8 of the European Convention which encompasses rights to physical autonomy and integrity. Article 8 is a ‘qualified right’ and so limitations on the right are permitted. The Ternovszky case concerned the right to give birth at home, but the principle applies equally to all choices that women make about childbirth. The decision represents a profound challenge to medical authority: if women have a legal right to make a choice, any limitation on that right must be justified. The decision-maker, whether a hospital or a doctor or midwife, must give proportionate reasons for their decision based on the individual circumstances of the woman and their reasons can be tested in court before a judge.
A reasonable request
To take the experiences of a number of women who have contacted Birthrights, if a women requests a c-section after a previous traumatic vaginal birth and explains to her midwife and obstetrician that she is afraid of giving birth vaginally again, the reasons given to her for refusing to offer a c-section can be scrutinised and balanced against her reasons for requesting a c-section. A court has not considered this sort of case before (and it seems unlikely that a case would reach court given the cost of litigation versus the much lower cost of simply providing the surgery), but a judge would undoubtedly take into account the serious effects of refusing the operation on the mother alongside obstetric risk as assessed by the doctor and, potentially, the financial cost of a c-section.
Some cases would be stronger than others. As recent research by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists revealed, in some UK hospitals women have a 40% chance of an emergency c-section after an induction. If a woman requests a c-section in order to avoid the induction process and the high odds of an emergency c-section or instrumental birth, and consequent potential trauma, a decision to refuse to perform the operation might be hard to justify. (And, of course, a failure to explain the likelihood of a c-section in these circumstances disables the woman’s ability to make an informed choice and casts doubt on her consent to the induction.)
We are often asked whether NICE guidelines have legal force to compel a doctor to provide a c-section. The NICE guideline on elective c-sections without a clinical indication states that women ought to be offered a c-section after discussion and an offer of mental health support. NICE guidelines are not legally binding on medical professionals. However, where a decision is made to depart form a guideline, reasons need to be given and exceptions considered in each individual case.
With thanks to RightsInfo who re-published this article last week to mark International Week for Respecting Childbirth
In March, the Department of Health launched a consultation about one of the key recommendations in the Better Births report – introducing a Rapid Resolution and Redress scheme for families whose babies suffer severe injury due to negligent maternity care. These families currently wait an average of 11.5 years to receive compensation.
Birthrights believes there is a clear need for such a scheme. However it must be designed around the needs of the families and children it is intended to serve, and it must be sustainable. Birthrights feels that the exclusion of stillbirths and neonatal deaths is arbitrary and insensitive. We are also concerned that the proposal for the NHS Litigation Authority to administer the scheme will undermine its credibility and effectiveness.
You can read Birthrights’ full response here. Please feel to draw upon our response as a basis for your own. The consultation closes on the 26th May.
The Royal College of Midwives and Birthrights today launched a new i-learn module on human rights, which is available to all RCM members.
Birthrights CEO, Rebecca Schiller commented: “With the launch of A-EQUIP planning complex care will not longer be down to a specialist. Therefore all midwives and maternity workers need to understand how human rights law can empower them to advocate for women, and to plan individualised care. This i-learn module created by the RCM in collaboration with Birthrights is an important contribution to further training midwives for this role.”
You can see the full press release here.
Speaking after the release of a statement from IMUK this week (22/03/16), Rebecca Schiller, chief executive of Birthrights, said:
Birthrights supports the actions of this group of independent midwives and women who have announced their intention to bring a judicial review of a Nursing and Midwifery Council decision that has prevented some independent midwives from providing care to the women relying on them. We believe that the NMC’s decision has breached the rights of midwives to practise their profession and women to choose their care provider.
As I made clear in my January letter to its chief executive Jackie Smith, we do not believe that the actions of the NMC have been those of a responsible regulator. There have already been very damaging consequences of this incorrect decision. The NMC has jeopardised the safety of hundreds of women and babies by effectively severing each woman’s access to continuity in her midwifery care. Faced with the absence of any comparable NHS service in their area, or following previous traumatic experiences with local maternity services, I know of a number of women who now believe that their only choice is to give birth without any medical assistance.
The nature of this decision is also in direct opposition to the positive direction of current maternity policy, which has recognised how fundamental women’s decision-making and autonomy is to safe, quality services and is seeking to expand access to maternity services that allow women and their caregivers to build relationships.
For further information about IMUK or this legal action please contact: Kiran Nagendran (0203 772 2471, firstname.lastname@example.org)
A Rapid Resolution and Redress scheme was one of the key recommendations coming out of the Better Births report. This month the Department of Health has launched a consultation on this proposal.
Currently families whose children have suffered severe injury due to negligent maternity care have to wait an average of 11.5 agonising years to receive compensation. A Rapid Resolution and Redress scheme should offer a shorter, more supportive option for parents.
Birthrights will be responding and will be publishing a guide to the proposals on our website in the next few weeks. If you have direct experience we would particularly urge you to respond to this consultation and use this opportunity to have your voice heard.
The closing date for the consultation is 26th May.