Birthrights responds to the CQC’s national maternity survey

Commenting on the findings of the CQC’s national maternity survey, Amy Gibbs, Chief Executive of Birthrights, said:

“It’s positive that overall 88% of women surveyed felt they were ‘always’ treated with respect and dignity during labour and birth, but other findings highlight areas where maternity care is failing to respect women’s basic rights.

“Every woman has the right to choose where and how she gives birth, yet 15% said they were not offered any choices about where to have their baby and a quarter said they were not always involved enough in decisions about their care during labour and birth.

“Above all, the findings underline how vital continuity of carer is to improving women’s maternity experiences, giving them time and space to ask questions and make decisions that are right for them. We know that seeing the same midwife through pregnancy, birth and afterwards can make all the difference and help ensure safety goes hand in hand with dignity and respect. Yet only 15% of women reported that the midwives who cared for them during labour and birth had been involved in their antenatal care.

“It’s clear we need renewed commitment and drive at national and local levels, to ensure the vision of Better Births is achieved for most women to have continuity of carer by 2021.”

The full findings of the CQC’s maternity survey 2018 can be found here.

Birthrights responds to the NHS Long Term Plan

Responding to the publication of the NHS Long Term Plan today, Amy Gibbs, Chief Executive of Birthrights, said:

“We are really pleased to see improving maternity care at the heart of the NHS Long Term Plan, particularly the commitment that most women will receive continuity of carer by March 2021. We know that seeing the same midwife through pregnancy, birth and afterwards can make all the difference to women’s experiences and help ensure safety goes hand in hand with dignity and respect. This ambition must be backed up by investment in recruitment, retention and training, so NHS trusts up and down the country can make this pledge a reality for all women and midwifes are equipped to deliver rights-respecting care.

“We also welcome the goal to give more women access to mental health support following birth. In line with the Plan’s general focus on prevention, we would like to see equal effort on doing everything possible to avoid trauma during birth. How women are treated during their pregnancy and childbirth is a major driver for whether they experience trauma, so it is vital that delivery of the NHS Long Term Plan embeds respect for women’s rights to dignity, autonomy, privacy and equality explicitly into maternity care.”

Notes
The new NHS Long Term Plan includes commitments to:
  • reduce stillbirths and mother and child deaths during birth by 50%
  • ensure most women can benefit from continuity of carer through and beyond their pregnancy, targeting those who will benefit most
  • expand support for perinatal mental health conditions

Reflections on 2018

Four weeks into being Birthrights’ new Chief Executive, I’m feeling very lucky to lead such a brilliant organisation and brimming with positivity and ideas for 2019. I’m blessed with a very talented team, engaged and expert Trustees, supportive funders, invaluable partners and a wider enthusiastic pool of people who share our mission to improve women’s experience of pregnancy and childbirth by promoting respect for human rights.

As 2018 draws to a close, we wanted to share our highlights from the year. And since it’s Christmas, here are our top 12. I’m so impressed by how much has been achieved by our small but perfectly formed team – showing why #smallbutvital charities are so important. Clearly, I can take no credit for these and my thanks goes to the team and my predecessor, Rebecca Schiller, who I’m delighted will be joining the Board of Trustees next year.

In 2018, we’re proud to have:

  1. Launched our biggest campaign yet on the right to maternal request caesarean section
  2. Responded to over 170 email requests for advice from women in need
  3. Seen our online factsheets visited over 7,000 times – a 7% increase on 2017
  4. Delivered 18 speaking engagements or training sessions to healthcare professionals
  5. Strengthened our links with NHS England, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Royal College of Midwives, General Medical Council, Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, Public Services Ombudsman for Wales
  6. Engaged with the Maternity Transformation Programme Stakeholder Council and numerous NICE consultations
  7. Secured a new grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation to expand our team and impact
  8. Progressed our Baring Foundation and Trust for London funded work on women with complex needs
  9. Welcomed new team members, trustees, Associate Trainers and accountants on board
  10. Improved our financial systems and capacity to report on budgets and grants
  11. Deepened our partnership with Leigh Day and explored other corporate partnerships
  12. Continued our crucial collaborative relationships with Birth Companions and BPAS

And much more besides… Merry Christmas and thank you to all our funders, supporters and partners – I look forward to meeting and working with you in 2019!

Recruiting new Legal Officer

Birthrights is the UK’s only organisation dedicated to improving women’s experience of pregnancy and childbirth by promoting respect for human rights.

The Legal Officer is a new and critical role at Birthrights to manage our advisory and legal work, including running the advice service, overseeing strategic litigation and providing legal policy input with core stakeholders.

This is a part-time home based role, with a pro-rata salary of £15,000. To find out more and how to apply please download the Job Description.

Closing date for applications is 5pm on Wednesday 27th June 2018.

New research: Disabled women need to be heard and respected as experts about their bodies

Research published today and commissioned by Birthrights shows that disabled women are generally not receiving the individualised care and support they that they need to make choices about their maternity care.

Today’s publication includes and builds on the survey research published in 2016 which found that more than a quarter of disabled women asked felt that their rights were poorly or very poorly respected.  A quarter felt they were treated less favourably because of their disability, and more than half (56%) felt that health care providers did not have appropriate attitudes to disability. Some found birth rooms, postnatal wards, or their notes and scans “completely inaccessible”.

The new report published today presents data from in-depth interviews with disabled women.  It highlights the need to treat disabled women – as all women – as individuals with their own specific needs.  It emphasises the need to recognise that disabled women are experts in their own conditions and what they mean for their bodies and choices in childbirth.  Participants described distressing scenarios of having to prove that their choices were suitable, undermining their dignity. In one very concerning case, one participant described not being given all the information she needed to make an informed decision about her care during labour, and being denied the choices she would have made as a result.  Respecting women’s dignity means respecting and trusting women’s individual needs and knowledge.

Participants also described having to explain themselves repeatedly to each new care provider; at times feeling as if the focus was on their impairment rather than their needs as a person: “You’re not a pregnant woman you’re just a body. Because if I was a person to them, if I was a pregnant woman they would have read my file”. Women who had experienced continuity of carer spoke very positively of their experiences and of experiencing more dignified care.

All women had some poor experiences of postnatal care.  In some cases participants did not see the point in raising issues when continuity of care was lacking and midwives were short of time; something the researchers suggest “must raise questions of safety of practice”.

Participants had mixed experiences of antenatal and parenting support: some women were provided tailored support early on but others felt that they were expected to take the lead in asking for what they wanted or found that activities or information were not offered in an accessible way.

Throughout the study, women felt that they had to be empowered, enabled, informed and supported to advocate for their rights.  They emphasised the need to be listened to and treated as individuals.  Not doing this has a long term impact: women who were not listened to and whose rights were not respected lost confidence and felt undermined long after the birth.

Birthrights’ Chair, Elizabeth Prochaska commented: “It is fundamentally important that disabled women – like all women – receive dignified maternity care that respects their human rights. The research published today highlights that much more work is needed by maternity services in order to provide high quality individualised care to all disabled women.  This must include ensuring that all women are given all the information they require to make decisions about their care, in a way that respects their own knowledge about their bodies.”

Professor Vanora Hundley said: “The National Maternity Review, Better Births, highlighted the importance of personalised maternity care that focuses on the needs of the woman and her family. Good communication is a key to achieving woman centred care, and our findings suggest that this remains a particular challenge for women who have a disability.”

Dr Bethan Collins added: “The findings highlight the importance of communication: service providers need to both respect women’s knowledge of their own bodies while also providing the expert support to enable women to make informed decisions about their care.

“Continuity of carer was so important to many of the women, but does not seem to be common practice. As a researcher and as a disabled parent myself, I empathise with the experiences of women in our study. There is a job to do to raise awareness of disability and enable women to have a dignified experience.”

The research suggests that maternity services need to adapt to provide high quality individualised care to all disabled women. This includes improving both attitudes and knowledge of disability and disabled women among maternity professionals, ensuring all disabled women receive continuity of carer, allowing additional time for disabled women to discuss their needs, preferences and choices, auditing access and ensuring that reasonable adjustments as required under the Equality Act 2010 are made available.

The research was conducted by Jenny Hall, Jillian Ireland and Professor Vanora Hundley at Bournemouth University and Dr Bethan Collins, Senior Lecturer in Occupational Therapy at the University of Liverpool.

With thanks to the Matrix Causes Fund for supporting this work.

Home birth – what are a Trust’s responsibilities towards midwives and women?

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 (info@birthrights.org.uk) 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.

 

#Metoo shows we need trauma-informed maternity care

The outpouring of posts from survivors of sexual violence, assault and abuse as part of the grassroots #MeToo campaign underlines what many of us working in maternity care believe strongly. A significant number of women accessing important services in pregnancy and birth will have experienced trauma in their lives. And sadly, many of these individuals will have been traumatised by sexual violence which may impact on how safe they feel within services which might be triggering of their trauma.

Last week Birthrights was honoured to hold a seminar as part of the Sheila Kitzinger Programme, hosted by Green Templeton College Oxford. You can read more about it in our soon-to-be emailed newsletter. We met to consider how to make truly informed, lawful consent a reality in maternity care in the light of the landmark judgment in the Montgomery v Lanarkshire case. During the day it was clear to all that respectful maternity care, care that protects human dignity and autonomy, is of fundamental import to the physical and emotional wellbeing of women and their families. Moreover the group felt that an individual should not need to disclose previous trauma in order to access care that is sensitive to their needs. As part of our follow-up report we’ll be suggesting that a trauma-informed approach to maternity care, that ensures all services are sensitive to the needs of those who may contend with trauma in their lives, is essential.

Ahead of this report we are grateful to two anonymous survivors of sexual abuse for sharing their personal experiences and perspectives on maternity care with us and with those policy makers charged with the important work of transforming our maternity services. You can find their letters below.

Increasing continuity of carer, ensuring all birth place choices (including homebirth and maternal request caesarean) remain viable options and insisting that our midwives and doctors are given the time and skills within an appropriate organisational culture to be enabled to practice rights respecting care must remain a focus in the Maternity Transformation Programme.

We hope you will help us share their message and add your own below.

Trigger warning: please note that these letters discuss sexual abuse and birth trauma and some readers may find them triggering.

A letter from an anonymous survivor of sexual abuse for the attention of Birth Policy Makers

Another letter from an anonymous survivor of childhood sexual abuse for the attention of Birth Policy Makers

How should Health Care Professionals handle a maternal request for caesarean?

Its 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 womens request for an elective caesarean section creates an antagonistic starting point for discussion and doesnt 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 womens 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.”

Simon Mehigan

Ban on Northern Irish Abortion Upheld

In a judgment published today, we were disappointed to learn that a Supreme Court appeal, challenging the government’s refusal to provide NHS-funded abortion care in England for women resident in Northern Ireland, has narrowly failed. Birthrights joined coalition of reproductive rights charities, Alliance for Choice, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), the Family Planning Association (FPA), and the Abortion Support Network (ASN), to intervene in the case.

The court was divided 3-2 against the appeal and, in a sensitive and thoughtful judgment which made it clear that the levels of distress and hardship endured by vulnerable women were real and unacceptable, the Court ruled that they couldn’t force the Secretary of State to fund the abortions of Northern Irish women.

 

The case was brought by a young woman, A, who in 2012 as a pregnant 15-year-old girl travelled with her mother, B, from their home in Northern Ireland to Manchester for an abortion at a cost of £900. Abortion is effectively banned in all but the most severe of circumstances in Northern Ireland. Despite being UK tax-payers, women from Northern Ireland in need of abortion care have had to fund both their travel to England and their treatment.

The Court’s ruling stated that – as Secretary of State – Mr Hunt holds the legal authority to grant women resident in Northern Ireland NHS-funded abortion care in England, but had decided against doing so – not due to financial constraints – but out of “respect” for the democratic decisions of the Northern Ireland Assembly, in which the largest party is the DUP.

The Secretary of State had previously stated that the Government’s policy was that “in general, the NHS should not fund services for residents of Northern Ireland which the Northern Ireland Assembly has deliberately decided not to legislate to provide.”

The judges expressed a profound sympathy for the “plight” of women in Northern Ireland facing an unplanned pregnancy. Lord Wilson, who did not rule in favour of the appeal, stated that the “embarrassment, difficulty, and uncertainty attendant on the urgent need to raise the necessary funds” added significantly to mother and daughter’s “emotional strain.”

In a comment piece to be published later today, our CEO Rebecca Schiller, is expected to highlight that Lady Hale’s dissenting opinion reflected many of the points we made in our intervention. Lady Hale pointed to autonomy and equality as the “fundamental values underlying our legal system.” Underpinning all of that she invoked the profound legal and moral imperative given by the respect for human dignity. “The right of pregnant women to exercise autonomy in relation to treatment and care,” said Lady Hale, “has been hard won but it has been won.”

Rebecca is also expected to ask for assurance from the Prime Minister that women’s rights are not threatened by any future alliance between the Conservatives and the DUP. To that end she has written to the Prime Minister on behalf of Birthrights, in a joint letter which you can read in full here.

In a statement this morning our Chair, Elizabeth Prochaska, added, “the government’s tolerance of this affront to women’s dignity is deeply concerning. For very little cost to the NHS, women in Northern Ireland could be given access to abortion care in Britain. We need immediate clarity from the Prime Minister that any alliance with the hardline DUP will not be allowed to undermine our commitment to women’s equality and reproductive rights.”

A and B are now expected to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights and, if they do, our coalition of reproductive rights charities will be ready to intervene to help protect the vulnerable and ensure their voices are heard.

You can read the press release from the Interveners here.

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