Independent Midwifery: An Update From Birthrights CEO

Following the recent NMC decision on the indemnity cover that IMUK members have taken out, Birthrights has been working to support women who now find themselves without the midwife of their choosing. I wanted to give you an update on what we have been doing to help and to respond to some requests for information.

Letter to the NMC
As you may know, I wrote to the NMC’s Chief Executive, Jackie Smith, as soon as the decision was made public to express my concerns and ask for clarification. I have now received a response from Ms Smith and am asking the NMC to allow me to make that response public. I hope to share it with you in due course.

UPDATE 14/02/17
I now have permission to share Jackie Smith’s response to my letter. You can read it in full here.

Bank Contracts
In the meantime Birthrights posted some information with suggestions about how independent midwives might seek honorary or bank contracts from their local NHS Trusts to enable them to continue to care for indviduals already booked with them. While some Trusts have been able to grant these contracts, others haven’t. I am in the process of writing to Heads of Midwifery who have refused to grant contracts to independent midwives along with the Trust Chief Executives and the MSLC chairs.

In my letters I am making it clear that NHS Trusts (and Head of Midwifery post-holders as Trust employees) are under a legal obligation to facilitate women’s right to make choices about birth (Human Rights Act and Article 8, European Convention on Human Rights). In order to discharge their obligations lawfully, they must diligently consider all the mechanisms in their power to enable women’s choices and decisions in childbirth to be respected. I am informing them that they must consider the individual circumstances of the woman and her particular situation rather than invoking a blanket policy, and insisting that when the Trust has made a decision it must give its full reasons for their decision and these reasons must be clearly justified.

Given that some Trusts have swiftly been able to arrange honorary and/or bank contracts with local independent midwives in this situation, it is not clear what justification other Trusts have for refusing to grant a similar arrangement. So, I am asking them to consider their legal obligations carefully, to investigate how other Trusts have been able to accommodate independent midwives and to reconsider the options available.

I have also included some information about the likelihood of some women feeling forced to freebirth, particularly in the absence of any equivalent provision for continuity of carer within the local NHS services. And I have expressed an urgent concern about the avoidable harm that could come to women and babies in this situation, as well as the difficult position that Trust staff could find themselves in should a disengaged and fearful woman need to access emergency care in labour or the broader perinatal period.

In these circumstances, the granting of honorary or bank contracts may represent the only way for vulnerable women to access any maternity care at a critical time in their pregnancies.

Concerns about midwives attending the births of friends and family
There has been recent publicity, linked to the independent midwives’ situation, concerning the legal position for all midwives attending a close friend or family member in the intrapartum or broader perinatal period.I am aware that, until now, it has been perfectly routine and accepted practice for midwives to attend their close friends and family members in labour, both in a supporter role and as a practicing midwife.However, Birthrights is not in a position to give legal advice to those seeking clarity on the current legal position on this matter. We suggest that midwives contact the RCM, the NMC and speak to their NHS Trust to get clarification on the situation in their area and their particular circumstances.

We will continue to do all we can in public and behind the scenes to support women and their midwives at this challenging time.

Rebecca Schiller

Birthrights Criticises NMC for Independent Midwives Decision

Birthrights strongly criticised today a decision by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) that prevents many independent midwives from caring for women in labour. The decision (which relates to the level of indemnity insurance arranged for many independent midwives by their umbrella body, IMUK) has resulted in the regulator instructing pregnant women to make immediate alternative arrangements for their birth care.
In an urgent letter to NMC chief executive Jackie Smith, Birthrights CEO Rebecca Schiller said that the NMC’s actions, “appear designed to cause maximum disruption and damage to independent midwives and the women they care for,” adding that, “we do not believe that these are the actions of a responsible regulator.”
Schiller adds that “the NMC has a key role to play in protecting public safety, yet this decision directly jeopardises the health and safety of the women it is supposed to safeguard. Beyond the very real physical health implications of this decision, it is causing emotional trauma to women and their families at an intensely vulnerable time. To date, it appears that the NMC has shown no concern for the physical and mental wellbeing of pregnant women who have booked with independent midwives.”
In the letter, Birthrights highlights the unnecessarily tight timescale imposed by the NMC and lack of attempt to communicate what constitutes adequate levels of insurance. Schiller expresses her concern that some women will now feel forced to give birth alone adding, “many women choose the care of an independent midwife because they are unwilling to access NHS services, often because of previous traumatic experiences. Without the support of their chosen independent midwife, women have already told us that they feel their only option will be to birth without any medical or midwifery assistance. We hope that you will share our urgent concern about the avoidable harm that could come to women and babies in this situation.”
Birthrights is urging the NMC to remedy the damage caused to date by taking urgent steps that include:
  1.  Guaranteeing that all women who are currently booked with independent midwives using the IMUK insurance scheme will be able to continue to access their services
  2.  Reassuring Birthrights, IMUK and the women who have already engaged the services of independent midwives that the midwives caring for them them will not face disciplinary action for fulfilling their midwifery role
  3. Urgently making a public recommendation on what constitutes adequate insurance.

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.

“Safety” must include a maternity system that supports respectful care

In a statement responding to the Health Secretary’s announcement today of a package of measures aimed at improving safety in maternity care, Birthrights CEO Rebecca Schiller said:

Birthrights welcomes innovation and investment in maternity care. We are particularly pleased to see the Health Secretary’s commitment to the Better Birth report’s recommendation that a ‘rapid redress and resolution’ compensation system is introduced. We frequently see the negative impact of a culture of fear on healthcare practitioners, and the women they care for, and believe that this new model has the potential to improve transparency and practice in maternity care as well as the lives of people whose babies are damaged during birth.
 
Investment in maternity care is desperately needed but we are concerned that a narrow focus on ‘safety’, at the expense of a maternity system that enables midwives and doctors to provide respectful, personalised care, will not deliver the high-quality, safe service we need for all women in England. We urge those taking this initiative forwards to ensure that the vision of the National Maternity Review, which recognises that safe care is only possible in a system that wraps around the individual women, remains a key driver for positive change.

Maternity Care Failing Some Disabled Women

Research published today (15/09/16) by Bournemouth University and commissioned by Birthrights highlights how maternity care may not be meeting the needs of some pregnant disabled women.

A survey of women with physical or sensory impairment or long term health conditions highlighted how  – despite most women rating the support they received from maternity health carers positively – only 19% of women thought that reasonable adjustments or accommodations had been made for them. Some found birth rooms, postnatal wards and their maternity notes and scans “completely inaccessible”,  while a quarter of women reported that they felt they were treated less favourably because of their disability. Most strikingly, more than half (56%) felt that health care providers did not have appropriate attitudes to disability.

Just over half of the participants expressed dissatisfaction with one or more care providers, particularly their awareness of the impact of disability and their perception that their choices in pregnancy and birth were being reduced or overruled. One participant with a physical impairment and a long-term health condition stated, “No one understood my disability. No one knew how to help or who to send me to for support.” Another added, “I didn’t have any control or any choice. Everything was decided for me.” And one woman said, “They did not listen to me. I advised them on the unique way my body works. They did not listen to my advocates.”

Speaking in advance of the publication of her book Why Human Rights in Childbirth Matter and the Birthrights #newchapter campaign linked to the launch, Rebecca Schiller, chief executive of Birthrights said, “this interim report suggests that there are significant human rights issues at stake for disabled pregnant women in the UK and Ireland. More than a quarter of women we surveyed felt that their rights were either poorly or very poorly respected. This is unacceptable and we will be working hard to address this over the coming years.

After Birthrights’ dignity in childbirth survey (2013) we became concerned that the needs of disabled women in the system were not being met. Though it’s heartening to see how overall most women were satisfied with their care and hear some positive stories of excellent practice there is clearly progress to be made. The women surveyed asked overwhelmingly to be listened to. It is crucial to listen to and trust women to ensure the system is genuinely meeting their requirements and that they are at the heart of decisions about their maternity care. The Equality Act 2010 places a duty on the public sector to provide services that meet the diverse needs of those who use them yet participants indicated worrying lack of attention to accessibility of maternity services and facilities for women with a range of disabilities.

The survey is indicative of a wider problem around women’s rights in childbirth that can impact on all women and often most forcefully on the most vulnerable . This month Birthrights is launching a campaign for a #newchapter in pregnancy and childbirth to ensure safe, quality, respectful care is available to all women. Pregnancy and childbirth are a vulnerable time and the physical and emotional impact on women and their babies of a negative journey through pregnancy and childbirth can be severe.”

Professor Vanora Hundley of Bournemouth University added, “while this is a small survey the findings echo the recommendations of the National Maternity Review published earlier this year, which highlighted the importance of personalised, woman-centred care with continuity of carer. It is clear that these are important considerations for all women, but particularly for those women who have a disability.”

Read the full interim report here. We expected the full report to be released in January 2017 when the qualitative research is completed. With thanks to the Matrix Causes Fund for supporting this work.

Human dignity after the EU referendum

In the volatile political, economic and social climate of post-referendum UK many of us are anxious and uncertain about the future. As a charity Birthrights did not take a position on the referendum and it would be wrong for us to do so now.

What is clear to me today is that we are presented with a range of opportunities at a challenging time. For some these are opportunities for division, discrimination, violence, extremism and hate. As an organisation founded on respect for basic human dignity, we deplore those who have exploited these opportunities and the acts of xenophobia, racism and violence we have seen over recent days. The murder of women’s rights champion Jo Cox MP is a tragic testament to the consequences of allowing these divisions to widen.

But this isn’t all that lies within reach. Whatever our beliefs (and however the consequences of last week’s vote unfold) there is now a chance to reinforce and promote another set of values: respect, dignity, equality, justice and fairness. The values of the human rights movement.

The need for an understanding of our human rights framework has never been greater. As we cast about for an anchor in this storm we can hold on to the legal protection of our rights as individuals and the specific provisions for vulnerable groups. These protections exists in UK law (particularly in the Human Rights Act 1998) at a European level (through the European Convention on Human Rights which is not directly threatened by our leaving the EU, contingent as it is on our membership of the Council of Europe) and at an international level.

The values that underpin the human rights movement and the legal scaffolding that gives them teeth are vital now more than ever. Yesterday the United Nations expressed “serious concern” about the impact of UK’s pre-existing austerity policies on the most marginalised and disadvantaged. As we face the prospect of further economic disruption and begin to imagine how this could affect vulnerable groups, it is important to know we are not in a vacuum. Our government has key human rights obligations and it must fulfil them.

With this in mind Birthrights will continue to defend the human rights of all childbearing women, with a particular focus on those vulnerable groups who need us most. Whatever the impact of the referendum on the NHS, on midwives, doctors or on the vulnerable migrant women whose risk of maternal death or stillbirth is so high, we will continue to advise women and families, champion their rights, inspire and train their caregivers and use the power of the law to protect them.

Pregnancy and childbirth are an intensely vulnerable time for an individual. The way they are treated during birth affects them at a time in their lives when their identities as mothers are being forged and when they are developing their relationship with the next generation. The long-term physical health of women and babies is at stake in the care they are given and women’s fundamental rights to human dignity and autonomy can be profoundly affected by their experience of maternity care.

Human dignity matters in the post-referendum UK. It should be the principle we live by and the basis of the world we aspire to live in. The safety, equality, respect and dignity of each woman during pregnancy and birth will always be a strong foundation for that aspiration.

Rebecca Schiller, CEO, Birthrights

Birthrights needs your support today.

Birthrights Submission to Health Committee’s Maternity Inquiry

Yesterday the parliamentary Health Committee met as part of a short inquiry into maternity services following the publication of the National Maternity Review report ‘Better Births’. Birthrights submitted written evidence to the Committee, which is now publicly available on the Health Committee’s website.

In summary, Birthrights agrees with the National Maternity Review report’s vision that safe maternity care is personalised care and welcomes its recommendations. In our August 2015 letter to the Review team we set out that safe maternity care is contingent on respectful care and that a rights-based approach offers the best means of improving maternity services in the UK. We echo the insistence throughout the report that healthcare professionals should offer genuine choice and unbiased information and that service infrastructure should be wrapped around women and their needs.

We believe that the human rights legal framework and the values it promotes are vital tools in seeing this vision come to life. Many of the report’s recommendations are supported by rights women should already enjoy. These rights arise from human rights law and existing policy and could provide a strong platform from which to drive implementation forwards.

Respect for human rights is fundamental to all healthcare. It is particularly critical in maternity care, given the transformative nature of childbirth and the moral and legal imperative to respect theautonomy and dignity of women. Moreover, quality maternity care improves experiences for the woman and her family, and affects a baby’s start in life and subsequent life chances. Every mother and baby should have equal access to quality care.

Birthrights believes that the Better Births recommendations could enable professional carers to provide respectful, woman-centred, personalised care which, we argue, will contribute towards optimal physical and psychological outcomes and secure family relationships. We urge the Health Select Committee to draw on the positive power of the human rights principles and framework in making these recommendations a reality.

Read our submission in full here.

Policing Pregnancy

Thanks to all of you who joined us for a packed day at the Royal College of Physicians on 13th April. The event was attended by over 100 midwives, advocates, academics, policy makers, journalists, and others concerned about the expansion of risk thinking and its effects for the autonomy and choice-making ability of women.

The Policing Pregnancy conference was collaboration between British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), Birthrights and the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies and was a chance to look at the impact of risk culture across the spectrum of pregnancy and birth decisions.

Impact on Women

Speaking in advance of the conference Birthrights chief executive Rebecca Schiller said:

 “We need to stop viewing pregnant women as hostile environments. The experience of childbirth can impact on women for a lifetime: setting them up positively for motherhood or leaving a traumatic legacy. Women’s fundamental human rights are at stake at this vulnerable time. All too often they are coerced in to making decisions they later regret. Given access to unbiased information, evidence and support, women can interpret and choose risks for themselves and their babies. For some the lowest risk on paper may not be the best option. There is no choice to be made between a woman and foetus. A woman and the baby she grows are best served by allowing her to make her own decisions with appropriate supportive care and evidence based information.”

You can hear Farah Diaz-Tello (of National Advocates for Pregnant Women’s), keynote lecture here along with slides from all the day’s presentations.

A human rights approach

Read articles based on the themes of the conference in The Conversation, the Daily Mail, and spiked. Additional press coverage is available here.

Fighting the Fear: Sold Out

We’ve been delighted by the positive response to our Fighting the Fear event coming up on 30th September. Tickets have been sold out for a while and we have a long waiting list so sorry to those of you who’ve expressed interest but won’t be able to join us. We will be repeating the event in future so look forward to announcing a date in the not-too-distant future.