York Homebirth Midwives: between a rock and a hard place (and women crushed in the middle)

Guest blog by Emma Ashworth

“If you arrive at the home of a woman and she refuses to allow you to access her home or to provide care to her, you must explain that you will need to leave and explain this decision to her. You should inform the woman that you will be happy to return to provide care should she want you to do so. The conversation should be fully documented.”

York Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust: Home Birth Guideline Version No: 9, August 2017 – August 2020. Page 7

This quote from the York homebirth guidelines could lead to catastrophe.

While the senior midwives at York have said that they are reacting to a situation where they were not permitted in the house, the worrying phrase is this, “[the woman] refuses to allow you… to provide care to her”.

Women have been told that if they decline blood pressure monitoring, or intermittent monitoring, or even vaginal exams that their midwife “has been told that she must” leave their house and abandon them without care. Midwives have argued that if the mother doesn’t want to have interventions or tests, why should they even be there? What is their purpose? The knitting midwife expectantly and watchfully waiting in the corner, only intervening when necessary, does not seem to be the type of midwifery that York Trust is aiming for despite the fact that this type of midwifery leads to the best outcomes as is seen by the results of independent midwives.

Women have reported that midwives have coerced them into vaginal exams that they didn’t want with the threat of leaving them to birth alone. They have had to make the decision to allow someone to penetrate their vagina when they didn’t want them to, or to be left without clinical care for themselves or their babies.

In a discussion with one of the senior midwives at York Trust, I was assured that the threats that women were experiencing were not the intention of the policy, and that recently midwives had stayed with women despite the women declining certain interventions. I was also assured that the midwife that I spoke to would take my feedback to the community and home birth midwives to ensure that there was clarity in the guideline. She also confirmed that the guideline was in the process of review, so perhaps the very clearly written text in the current guideline saying that women in their own home are not permitted to refuse to have someone’s fingers inside them if they want a midwife to stay will be removed. However, despite my attempts to follow up this with the Trust, to date (7th August) I have not received a response to my initial or follow up requests.

In the meantime, Birthrights and AIMS have worked together on this issue, leading to an information sheet for women and midwives who might find themselves in this situation.

There are some really key points here that the Trust and its midwives need to consider about these guidelines. Midwives are under an obligation to act within the law, and coercing women into interventions is illegal. While the Trust may argue that there is no point in the midwife being there if the woman doesn’t want to have some clinical checks, we need to remember that women can decline any or all interventions at any time – and that a midwife’s role is far more than vaginal exams and listening in to a baby’s heartbeat. There is huge value in her being there, offering her support and knowledge and if necessary being able to intervene clinically. The Trust’s argument that there’s no point in the midwife being there belies the fact that skilled midwifery is in stepping in when needed, not about taking blood pressure. We need to remember that many of these interventions are not necessarily helpful, and can be harmful in some situations (and can also be very useful in others).

The AIMS information sheets on vaginal exams discusses some of the pros and cons of routine vaginal exams. Their sheet on monitoring in labour explains some of the risks and benefits of intermittent and continuous monitoring. If a woman wants to decline auscultation now, she can accept it for her next contraction, or decline it again. If a midwife forces her into a check on the threat of abandoning her, the stress of that on the woman may itself severely impact on her labour, and could cause damage to her or her baby, and the midwife is legally responsible for this. A midwife who undertakes an intrusive examination after obtaining consent through coercion needs to know that she is committing an assault on that woman, and that she could be criminally charged. Part 1.5 of the Nursing and Midwifery Code states that midwives must “Respect and uphold people’s human rights.” And 2.5 says, “respect, support and document a person’s right to accept or refuse care and treatment” 17.1 of the Code states that midwives must, “take all reasonable steps to protect people who are vulnerable or at risk from harm, neglect or abuse.” And yet, this guideline is instructing midwives that they must either neglect a woman, who while she is in labour she is by definition vulnerable (by leaving), or abuse them (by committing assault).  At the same time, if the midwife refuses to follow the guideline and stays with a woman who declines some or all interventions or checks during her labour, she is at risk of being disciplined by the Trust. And if she leaves, she and the Trust are likely to be liable for any adverse outcomes to mum or baby!

If women find themselves in the situation where they are being coerced in their own home, I would advise that they remind the midwife of her obligations under the NMC code and the law. Showing the midwife the Birthrights document could be enough to encourage the midwife to break out of the intolerable situation that she’s been forced into by this unfair and unreasonable Trust document. Know that what is being asked of you in your labour is not reasonable, it is not normal practice and it is not something you need to say yes to.

Midwives – rise up! You are autonomous practitioners and you cannot accept the risks to your own safety and practice that this guideline traps you in. You need to escape because no matter which way you choose you are exposing yourself to risk. Be part of the fight to change this guideline! Stay with women and request support from senior midwives (who have assured me that they will give it).  Don’t let this happen to you and to the women you’re caring for!

 

 

Breastfeeding, Tyranny and the RCM’s new Breastfeeding Statement

“End of breastfeeding tyranny!” scream the headlines. “Midwives instructed to stop shaming mothers!” they tell us, as though this is a new revelation that they’ve discovered, as though anyone, ever, telling women what to do, is something that any reasonable person should support.

Where has all this hyperbole come from?

The RCM has released a new breastfeeding position statement. It says, “Breastfeeding, more than any other health behaviour, has a broad-spectrum and long-lasting impact on public health.” This phrase itself should be repeated (and repeated and repeated) at every opportunity by every person campaigning to improve support for breastfeeding. Why is it that this isn’t the phrase that was picked up by the media and splashed across its headlines? Instead, they decided to focus on the phrase, “[if] a woman chooses not to do so, or to give formula as well as breastfeeding, her choice must be respected.” It seems that this message, above all others, has been the one chosen to splash across the front covers. It’s a desperately important message, and one that I wholeheartedly support. It is at the root and centre of the training of breastfeeding counsellors, who are required to offer non-judgemental, woman centred support including to women who don’t want to, or who want to stop, breastfeeding. It breaks my heart to read the awful stories that are abounding today from women who have had midwives who are more worried about their BFI status and breastfeeding stats than the people in front of them and I completely agree that any undue pressure must stop, just as women should not be pressured to NOT breastfeed.

But here’s the problem: The media don’t care about breastfeeding support, nor do they give a hoot about the women and babies who are mixed up in the middle of this. All they want to do is to create enormous straw men. In fact, they aim to create a veritable wicker man, with supportive non-judgemental care, and the consequential negative impacts on women and their babies, being the burning sacrifice, all with the aim of kowtowing to the god of the fruit of newspaper sales.

The RCM’s report is packed with hugely valuable and important statements. Let’s just take a look at a few of them:

  • Clinicians should make every effort to support skin to skin for an hour after birth
  • Maternity units should be appropriately staffed, and sufficient investment made In postnatal care to enable each woman to get the support and advice she needs to make informed choices about feeding her baby.
  • UK-wide Infant Feeding surveys (which were discontinued in 2015) should be reinstated

These are just a few examples of some of the really important details that could have been covered by the media, but which have been ignored in favour of the more colourful, but morally vacuous focus on what they are calling “the breastfeeding tyranny”. A reasonable discussion about the removal of qualified support for women where breastfeeding groups have been decommissioned, or a campaign to upskill midwives who are expected to support women to breastfeed with a few days of training (compared to the two year breastfeeding counsellor course), or perhaps an article on why women are still having their babies taken from their bodies and denied skin to skin – these would all be hugely valuable topics for the media to cover. These would all be game changers for mothers and babies.

Let’s not be under any illusions. The media used the component of the report that it did and ignored the rest because it sells newspapers, and it increases the rhetoric that causes even more stress and distress around infant feeding. This was not intended to support women, nor to help those who have had the horrific experiences that we see in the comments section today, and who we must continue to listen to, hear and demand change for,  but to sell newspapers. Nothing more.