For Whom This Bell Tolls

Image of candlePity for whom this bell tolls.

By Ruth Weston

In recent weeks I have found myself getting involved in a controversy in some of the Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust Maternity groups.

Mothers, birth workers and midwives were raising concerns about the policy of preventing partners from attending scans. While scans are often thought of as being a welcome chance to see the baby, their purpose is to look for possible problems. In around one in twenty scans something of concern may be found and women are being forced to hear information that their baby may not be completely healthy without anyone to support them. Partners are being completely excluded from this information at this time, and from the opportunity of asking questions themselves, about their own child.

Sometimes, it is found that the baby has died. One cannot imagine the suffering of a women forced to be separate from her most loved and trusted ones at the point of learning her child is dead. 

Despite restrictions on visiting being lifted, women are prevented from even taking their partners into scans via video call. A number of women have picked up the issue and have been pushing hard for change.  This particularly came to a head when the Trust put out an infographic on what was allowed and not and why.  “Medico-legal” reasons were cited as the reason for not allowing video calls at a scan – so we asked what these medico legal reasons are.  Three weeks later, we still have no answer. I can think of medico reasons aplenty why women very much should have video calling and indeed recording at a scan and antenatal appointment – I cannot think of any good and honest ones that should stop a woman having that support and protection.

The infographic also explained there was a time issue with having a partner – even remotely – attending the scan – for health and safety reasons in the small scan room staff wanted to limit the time with each woman, and an extra five minutes was too much.  Why are five extra minutes needed to tell a partner the same thing as the woman? If there was a video call during the consultation, no additional time would be needed. As yet, we still have no answer.

I pointed out that if a staff member increased their theoretical risk by spending five minutes more with each woman, then they would see fewer people per day, thus reducing their theoretical risk of contracting or spreading Covid-19.  That argument could be played both ways.

Then there was the old chestnut – the video call would distract the staff member from their important work. My response? Tell everyone to be quiet, like you would if they were in the room, and when the scan is done go ahead and ask questions as normal!

A birth worker shared a woman’s post of her experience of being told her baby was dead at a scan – alone and without her partner.  And then things fired up.  Because the question is not about the “medico-legal” issues, or “health and safety”.  The question is whether we as a health service, we as staff members, have compassion for the women and families in our care.  The question is whether we are kind.  If we are kind and compassionate then we will look at what must happen and then find ways to make the service humane.  I look at what is happening here and see systems justifying themselves in negligent cruelty to women. That cruelty is the outcome of decisions not  intended in themselves to be cruel but which are made without compassion being central to the decision making.

We are told that our concerns have been raised with the staff on a number of occasions, we are told that our representations have been made strongly, but three, four weeks later there is still silence.  And that silence clangs loudly like a warning bell of a self-supporting system that acts without compassion.  In such a system kind people can be cruel, and courageous people can be crushed.  I pity those for whom this bell tolls.

Covid-19 restrictions are stripping away birth rights

Image of a distressed womanMidwife Claire Harbottle shares her worries about how Covid-19 restrictions are affecting hard fought for birth rights.

“In the 60s and 70s pregnant women went into hospital alone to give birth. They were subjected to routine enemas and pubic hair shaving (both unnecessary and potentially harmful), routine episiotomy if it was a first baby (unnecessary, painful and harmful), separation from their babies and regimented feeding schedules (positively harmful).

Their partners viewed their new babies from behind a viewing screen, making bonding harder (harmful). By the eighties and nineties all women were routinely given a period of time on a continuous monitor upon admission to hospital (pointless and harmful), but at least their partners were allowed to be with them during the birth.

Since then, campaigning has meant that partners can be more involved in birth and in most hospitals they have had open visiting including overnight. Enemas are a thing of the past, as is shaving, routine episiotomy and separation.

Covid restrictions did away with 40 years of campaigning for the rights of parents and birthing people to be supported by their partners at this crucial and vulnerable time. All of the interventions listed above have been entirely discredited – yet we still have interventions now which are considered ‘routine’ but which will be discredited in their turn. Birthing women and people often benefit from support to make their own decisions. Their partners need to be able to access them for this.

People outside the birth world are entirely unaware that partners are being refused access during antenatal care, during inductions (which can take days) and during postnatal stays. Some hospitals even stopped them being at the birth of their own child. The government lifted the ban on hospital visiting on 5th June but across the country partners are still being refused access.

It’s causing huge distress. It’s leaving birthing women and people vulnerable in a system that has form for getting it very wrong. You can go to the pub for a pint, but not to the ultrasound scan where problems with your baby may be spotted. You are banned from the decision-making consultation afterwards. You can fly to Spain for a holiday but not help your partner reach her new baby to feed after a caesarean section, nor care for your newborn. This is wrong and it’s in great danger of becoming normal. We cannot let this happen.”