A view from India: Human Rights in Childbirth

Today is Human Rights Day 2016. Every year on the 10 December we commemorate the day on which, in 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So on this day, when we think about how we can stand up for human rights both here in the UK, and all over the world, we are sharing a guest blog post from Lina Duncan, a midwife (@MumbaiMidwife), who has written about her experience of childbirth in India…

Trigger warning – this piece discusses a stillbirth

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I have lived and worked in urban India for nine years and during that time I have found that midwives are missing from the system. I have witnessed how hospital policies, mixed with religious or family tradition, harm women and their babies.

I have heard and read hundreds of stories about women in India who have been pressured into potentially unnecessary interventions with inaccurate, fear-mongering information. This breaks women. It damages them before they even begin to birth and care for their babies. Most women do not speak of these things because they are told that a healthy mother and baby is all that matters.

I have seen and heard of many tragic situations of pregnancy loss or stillbirth where the mother was not told the truth. In each case, the mother was told her baby was in the NICU. She was lied to and denied the right to meet her baby, to make memories, to grieve, to hold her baby. Mothers are too often then silenced in their grief.

I do not believe that a healthy mother and a healthy baby are all that matters. I believe that the truth also matters. Facts, and language, are vital, so that women have all the information they need to make informed decisions. This is especially the case when a care provider has to give difficult, or potentially devastating news.

Truth + Kindness + Compassion = (usually) Satisfaction and Comfort

Half-truths + Lies + Fear = Broken Trust, Fear and Trauma

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I have a friend. She looks a little wild, maybe that’s why I liked her from the start. She often has a vacant look in her eyes. Frequently, she adjusts her clothes and shows me bruises from her alcoholic husband.

She doesn’t know her birthday, nor her age. She looked about 22 when I first knew her, pregnant with her first son who was born in a temporary shelter where she was living on a disused railway platform.

Fast forward a couple of years. I have not seen her for months. Her chaotic life is mostly about daily survival. She feeds her drunk husband first, of course. Then, her son, and then, her pregnant self. She has not had any antenatal check-ups. I persuade her to go with me to the government hospital, with son in tow because she is afraid to leave him with his father.

I show her what to do and entertain her lovely unruly son who is filthy. Everyone stares at me, and her, and it’s awkward and tedious. It takes about seven hours to get completely registered. She is prescribed vitamins, calcium, protein powder. I get her a few of the important ones and open them so they can’t be sold for liquor.

I don’t see her again for months and I worry.

One day she rocks up and calls my name. She is 39 weeks pregnant. She has had no antenatal care for 30 weeks. She does not want to go back to hospital but her husband thinks it’s a good idea. I go with her. The son stays at ‘home’.

The hospital wants to see a sonogram. The machine is broken. We have to pay 400 rupees (£4) for a private one. She has 10 rupees only. I pay. It takes forever.

I’m ‘not allowed’ in with her. Then the curtains are drawn back and I’m invited in. I know it’s not good news. ‘No heartbeat and only part of the brain,’ says the sonographer, to me. My heart sinks. I ask him to tell my friend as my Hindi is not good enough. He tells her and she smiles and says, ‘let’s go get lunch’. She has not understood.

We get food and find her husband, who is drunk, and her 3-year-old son, who has bloody knees and chin from playing alone in a building site. She is angry. I call my consultant doctor friend who works in a government teaching hospital. He invites us to go there immediately.

Another sonogram. Heavily pregnant woman with confirmed anencephalic baby. Drunk husband. Three-year-old doing somersaults all around the hospital wearing his father’s t-shirt and nothing else. We are a laughing stock and I am requested to stay and admit my friend for induction and then remove the husband and son.

She is disturbed that her son is alone with dad and they are not ‘allowing’ her out of hospital. The hospital requests that she fasts and start induction at 5am the following morning. I ask several times, politely, if I may accompany her but it is not allowed. Baby is breech and still alive. I have had lots of conversations with her about what to expect. It hasn’t sunk in. She either doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to.

That night, I tell her I will come and I will be outside the ward until she gives birth and they let me see her. I tell my friend that when she feels alone, she can know I am just on the other side of the wall. This breaks my heart. I am a midwife.

She has to go into the labour ward alone.

A colleague and I sit on the floor outside the labour room for 19 hours. Being a doula through a wall is very hard, especially knowing what she is about to face. No one should have to labour and birth without a companion.

Around 1am we are called into a little room to look at her little girl who has been born dead. I ask to take a picture for my friend. They assure me that she will be shown her baby but don’t let me in to be with her. I take pictures on my phone. They are lovely doctors but I am so angry.

At 4am they let me in to see her and ask me to buy her tea and food. It had been about 30 hours since she has eaten.

It is easy to find her, sitting up in bed with a big grin, announcing she is starving and asking where her food is. I ask her if she has seen her baby and she says, ‘not yet’. I ask her if she wants to see my photos and she says yes. I tell her that her baby was not born alive, that she was a girl, that her heart had stopped beating before she was born. I tell her the truth. She doesn’t ‘hear’ it. She smiles, asks me to come back in the morning and goes into a deep sleep.

In the early hours of the morning my phone rings. Sobs, deep sobs and demands. ‘Come now’, she says. ‘They have killed my baby,’ she says. My friend is distraught in a room full of mothers with their babies.

The day she is discharged I go to bring her home. She’s a darling and so feisty. She laughs and jokes until we walk arm in arm out of the ward. Then her body begins to shake. She says, ‘I came here to have a baby and I’m leaving with empty arms’. I have tears running down my face as well and passers-by gave us kind looks.

My colleagues and I make many visits over the following days and weeks. The family like to see the picture on my phone.

My friend has since had another baby. Her husband sold her when she was only 2 weeks old. This is one woman, one story and she represents many that live in a silent story of abuse and disrespect.

Many of us are longing for the Human Rights in Childbirth conference to be held in Mumbai, February 2017. We hope to hear many women’s stories, hear from researchers, and talk about how a midwifery model of care can be introduced in India. Do follow the conference, and join in the conversation. #breakthesilence

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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.

Birthrights Condemns Guilty Verdict in Purvi Patel Case

Press Release 4 February 2015

Women’s charity condemns guilty verdict as Indiana woman is charged with ‘feticide’ and child neglect.

The jury in a landmark case in Indiana has found Purvi Patel guilty of two contradictory charges of ‘feticide’ and child neglect. Despite widespread condemnation of the case by legal experts, health organisations and human rights activists, Patel faces up to 70 years in prison after giving birth to a stillborn baby.
 
Rebecca Schiller, co-chair of Birthrights (the UK-based human rights in childbirth charity), said:
 
“This is the second case of Indiana’s feticide laws being used against the vulnerable pregnant women they theoretically seek to protect. It is a worrying demonstration of what happens when the outcome of individual pregnancies is made political and subject to criminal sanctions. In addition, women in Indiana (and a rising number of US states) struggle to access free, safe abortion and are forced to see ultrasound images of their foetus before an abortion will be performed.” 
 
“The health and wellbeing of women and babies is being jeopardised by attempts to undermine women’s rights to access abortion, make decisions about their pregnancies and the way they wish to give birth. Despite all major US health organisations opposing criminalising pregnant women for the outcomes of their pregnancies, an epidemic of strategic prosecutions is the reality for women in America. Women from ethnic minorities and those at the lowest end of the socio-economic spectrum are most frequently targeted in these cases.”
 
“It is essential that women feel able to access unbiased support services and antenatal care without fear of a prison sentence. Legal systems should assert that women need to be trusted to make decisions about their pregnancies and draconian restrictions on abortions only serve to penalise the most vulnerable women. 
 
“We need to remain vigilant about attempts to undermine women’s reproductive rights in the UK, while raising awareness of the hostile climate in the USA and supporting those American advocates seeking to protect women from these harmful laws.”

For more information please contact press@birthrights.org.uk and 07793084945.

 

Obstetric violence in Brazil

This week a court in Brazil authorised the forcible removal of a woman from her home and the performance of a cesarean section against her will. You can read the Brazilian news reports here, translated here. obstetric-violence

The justification? An obstetrician told the judge that a c-section was necessary to protect the fetus from potential harm. The mother did not suffer from any mental health disorder, she had mental capacity, and she had agreed to labour naturally in hospital. Her crime? According to news reports, she was deemed ‘high risk’ because she had had two previous c-sections and her baby was breech. She was in well-established labour when she was taken from her home by police and medical personnel.

Risk can never be a justification for authorising a violent physical assault on a woman. It is a very poor basis on which to make judicial decisions that have a long-lasting and profound effect on a person’s physical integrity. Risk might sound appealingly scientific and rational, but it is not. The risk of uterine rupture is around 0.5%. Put another way, there is a 99.5% chance that it will not happen. Which way you look at it depends on your personal sensitivity to risk. Some obstetricians would present the risk in one way, others would present it in another. Some support a woman to have a vaginal birth after two c-sections, others would recommend a c-section. Risk can never provide a sound legal basis for justifying an assault. When it is used to compel women to receive medical interventions, it is an expression of violent patriarchy, pure and simple. Would a Brazilian court order a man to undergo an invasive kidney transplant to save his dying child? No. Only women’s bodies are treated as public objects subject to the whims of the medical profession backed by the coercive power of the state.

Brazil is known for its appalling treatment of pregnant women. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women ruled in 2011 that health services in Brazil discriminated against a pregnant woman after she miscarried and was left to die in a primary care clinic. Risk to women’s lives is overlooked, risk to the life of the fetus apparently justifies grossly disproportionate state intervention.

We must hope that the response to this case will mark a sea-change in the treatment of pregnant women in Brazil.

You can sign the Avaaz petition here.