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

Guest blog by Emma Ashworth

**Please read the update at the bottom of this blog**

“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!

Update: January 2019
I have been advised by the Head of Midwifery in York that the guidance was updated in late 2018 to reflect the Trust’s recognition of this issue following conversations with me. They have also put into place a training day for midwives to ensure that they understand the amendments. However, it currently remains that midwives must be able to speak to the woman (whether she wants it or not) and remain in the woman’s birth space (whether she wants them there or not), otherwise the midwife must leave her home. This is not the case in hospital. We continue to campaign to change this position.


Why we couldn't wait for Kate – the induction and the Duchess

Our blog this month would not be complete without some discussion surrounding the birth of the Royal baby.  Welcome to the world, baby Charlotte.

Much speculation surrounded Kate during the final moments of her pregnancy regarding her due dates and possible induction. My hope is that she banished the entire furore from her home and read not a single article published by the mainstream media.

The Telegraph wins the unofficial Born Stroppy award for Worst Media Outlet after browbeating us with stunningly misinformed headlines like “Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge overdue with second child”, and this very disturbing leader

“The Duchess is thought to be a week overdue, suggesting the latest she would be allowed to wait by her doctors would be next Thursday, the day of the General Election. Some reports have claimed her due date was April 25, which would mean the Duchess may not be induced until a week on Saturday, as doctors treat two weeks after the due date as the cut-off point for allowing labour to come on naturally.”

Yes, you read it right. The Duchess (and her baby) would not be allowed to wait beyond election day.  No pressure, then?

to induce or not to induceLet’s get this straight.  This is the Duchess of Cambridge.  Revered, powerful, selected as one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine, being told vicariously through institutions such as the BBC and the Mail when she’s no longer allowed to be pregnant.  It seems laughable in that context, but it’s not. It’s not laughable because she is now the latest poster girl for all that is wrong with our views on pregnancy and birth and women’s rights to make informed choices for themselves and their babies.  We wouldn’t let someone tell us how much milk to pour into our coffee, and yet when it comes to the matter of birth we are expected to blindly follow a set of arbitrary rules imposed by people we don’t know, for purposes we don’t understand.

So, in repost to the Telegraph and all the other ill informed journo’s, here is my jargon busting selection of facts and evidence based articles on the final weeks of pregnancy.

Myth 1: If your pregnancy lasts over 40 weeks, you are ‘overdue’.
The truth: 80% of labours begin between 38 and 42 weeks. It is quite normal for a woman to gestate up to and even beyond 42 weeks, particularly in a first pregnancy, whose average duration is 41 weeks. Due dates are estimates. No more, no less.

A study by the US National Institute of Environmental Health found that the length of pregnancy can vary naturally by as much as five weeks, with only 4% of babies born on their 40 week ‘due date’.

Myth 2:  If I allow my pregnancy to continue beyond 42 weeks my placenta will stop working and my baby will die.
The truth: Placental function in an otherwise healthy woman does not simply cease.

Nature is far cleverer than that. It is true that placental function decreases at the end of pregnancy, when the placenta has more or less fulfilled its purpose.  This is a normal feature of a healthy pregnancy, but is used by some as a means of frightening women into accepting intervention that may not be necessary.

A fascinating Cochrane review of 22 studies including over 9,900 women found that if we induced every woman’s labour at 41 weeks, the risk of a baby dying is 0.03% (or three in 10,000). If every woman gave birth at over 42 weeks the risk would gradually increase over time in a reasonably linear fashion to just 0.3% (or 30 in 10,000).  So a doctor or midwife may tell you “you are 10 times more likely to lose your baby” if you go over 42 weeks, but they should also be pointing out that this 10 times risk is actually 10 times a value of 0.03, which is minute.  Putting it another way, 410 women would have to undergo induction (with all its risks and pitfalls) in order to save the life of one infant.  A baby is more likely to die from a cord prolapse (cord prolapse affects approximately 60 in in 10,000) but we don’t evacuate babies before they are ready for that.

To make matters more confusing, some of the data collected doesn’t rule out confounding variables, such as the lifestyle choices of the women in the study.  Some of those women will have had other risk factors, such as smoking (which damages the placenta) or previous known/unknown health conditions.

And there’s more! The researchers at Cochrane state that many of the studies they reviewed were quite old and some of the evidence was not of the best quality, and many of the trials were also considered at moderate risk of bias.

So you see, this is the vital perspective we are missing out on because many healthcare providers don’t have the time or inclination to inform us.  Why? I will let you gather your own conclusions, but I feel it is strongly to do with the culture of fear and forced compliance that surrounds the medical model of birth of which we are so fond in the UK.

If all women considering induction were party to this information, how many women would opt out of routine induction?

Myth 3:  Induction is risk-free.
The truth:  Whilst induction is not nearly as risky for women and babies as it once was, women who have inductions for post-dates (over 42 weeks) pregnancies are not exempt from injury, and there can also be implications for the unborn child, usually resulting from over-stimulation of the uterine muscle causing foetal distress.

This well researched article outlines the risks associated with induction in more depth, the main risks being as follows:

– Induction is slightly more likely to result in a Caesarean section, particularly in first births.
– Inducing labour too early can result in premature birth, which can cause issues such as breathing difficulties in the baby       (and for an individual it is impossible to tell when ‘too early’ really is).
– There may be reduced oxygen supply to the baby during labour, which can affect the baby’s heart rate.
– Increased risk of infection for both mother and baby.
– Increased risk of cord prolapse, a rare obstetric emergency which occurs when the cord slips into the vagina ahead of the   baby.
– Increased risk of uterine rupture, another rare but serious consequence of artificially stimulating the uterus (more common   in women who have 2 or more c-sections)
– Slight increase in risk of forceps or ventouse birth (often due to foetal distress caused by the hormones in the induction       preparation)
– Post-partum haemorrhage (bleeding after the birth), again caused by the over-stimulation of the uterus which can prevent   it from fully contracting after the birth.
– Prolonged stay in hospital (the pessary used to soften the cervix can take up to 24 hours or more to take effect, and can     sometimes be completely ineffective if the cervix is not ready to let the baby out.)

Myth 4: I’m not allowed to go beyond 42 weeks.
The truth: The simple answer to this is that you are allowed to do whatever you like.  Nobody can compel you to make a decision that isn’t right for you.  The role of a Midwife or an Obstetrician is primarily to inform you, and secondarily to advise you. What you choose to do with the information they impart is down to you.

If you find yourself being coerced or bullied by a healthcare professional into any situation you do not feel comfortable with, it is useful to ask them the following questions, based on a system known as the BRAIN acronym:

Benefits – what are the benefits of this procedure?  How will this help me and my baby?  Evidence?
Risks – What are the risks associated with this line of action?
Alternatives – What are my other options? Are there alternatives to this procedure?
Intuition – What is my gut feeling about this?  What is my instinct telling me?
Nothing – What is likely to happen if we do nothing?

Now, if you ask a healthcare professional, “what is likely to happen if we do nothing?” and they reply with something emotive like “your baby will probably die”, you know instantly that you are dealing with someone who is either very misinformed or is stretching the truth beyond its limits.  If you go through the BRAIN questions and get well informed answers with some concrete evidence to back those answers up, you are dealing with someone who is honest and at least reasonably objective.  I know who I’d rather put my trust in.

This helpful blog on informed consent by anthrodoula goes into more detail about how to implement the BRAIN acronym in a real life scenario.

Myth 5:  I cannot have a natural/normal/home/water/intervention free birth if my pregnancy lasts more than 42 weeks.
The Truth:
Yes, you can.  As a Doula I have supported many women in their 43rd week of pregnancy and all of these women have made a fully informed choice to refuse induction, for various reasons.  I highly recommend reading this article from the Homebirth UK website on ‘overdue’ babies, which is excellent reading whether or not you are planning a home birth.  In it, the author discusses the alternatives to induction and clearly demystifies the statistics and the guidelines used by the NHS. You will also find some empowering stories of babies born beyond their due dates.

A final note on the Duchess of Cambridge. Some of you may have noticed that she did not reveal her ‘due date’ to the press or public.  Any mention of dates in the papers was purely speculation.  And Kate is bucking a trend.  Many women are now choosing not to reveal their dates, instead favouring the option of a birth month. I believe this will work its way further into the public consciousness over time, as more women take back control of their choices, their bodies and their births.  Reader, I hope you are one of them.

This month’s guest blog has been written by Caroline Ward, Doula and birth rights campaigner.