I am often asked why I think human rights are relevant to maternity care. As a human rights lawyer, I am quick to think the answer is obvious: the NHS is bound by the Human Rights Act just like all other public bodies and so it must respect patients’ rights. But it’s fair to say that we are not used to framing debates about healthcare in human rights terms.
The report, published today, into the “appalling suffering” of patients at the Mid-Staffordshire Foundation Trust shows us how systemic failings in the NHS lead directly to human rights abuse. Years of understaffing and a managerial culture focused on the interest of the system rather than patients’ needs, led to disrespect, indifference and neglect. The Trust violated patients’ basic human rights to life and humane treatment. As Robert Francis QC said “fundamental rights to dignity were not respected.” Human rights claims on behalf of over 100 of the victims families have already succeeded, revealing the power of the Human Rights Act to compensate for medical abuse.
The labour ward at Stafford Hospital was implicated in the scandal. Women gave birth without attention from midwives and serious post-natal complications went undiagnosed. Birthrights has heard of bullying and coercion and procedures performed without consent.
The focus on bureaucracy, finance and targets, on policy and protocol, simply fails to create a culture that can provide good quality care to individuals. Pregnant women know this only too well, repeatedly told that they must bow to the strictures of hospital policies that are put above their own needs. We know “corporate self-interest”, referred to by Francis, too often takes priority in maternity services. We know women’s complaints about their maternity care are routinely side-lined by Trusts and regulators.
Human rights relentless focus on dignity and autonomy, on humane and person-centred treatment, means that pregnant women must never be treated as numbers to be churned through wards, but as individuals in the middle of a profound physical experience that will remain with them for the rest of their lives.
Mid-Staffs shows us what happens when human rights are disregarded, but it also gives us hope that change will come in the form of real appreciation for women’s dignity.
– Elizabeth Prochaska, Birthrights co-chair