Melbourne in mid-winter is grey and damp and cold. The tall concrete buildings block the weak, angled sunlight.
This week I have sat for two days in a tired meeting room in a city hotel that has passed its prime: not old enough to be interesting; not fresh enough to be attractive. The plate glass windows in the conference room revealed nothing more than the boarded up windows of a derelict multi-storey building on the other side of Little Collins Street.
The conference provided opportunities for comment on homebirth, and particularly homebirths that have gone wrong. Lawyers presented papers on topics such as 'Managing the Risks inherent in Women's Choice in Obstetric Care', and 'Practical Obstetric Risk Management: defending your care'. It sounded simple.
Human rights in the childbirth process were eloquently discussed by other lawyers who drew from both their knowledge of the law and their personal experience.
'Open Disclosure' was discussed by two speakers, and I concluded that, in order to 'defend' oneself against potential legal or disciplinary action, an adverse event in a hospital is met with what seems to me to be a charade called 'open disclosure' that is not very open, and that doesn't disclose much. Don't be too literal about the meaning of 'open' or the meaning of 'disclosure'. A curious conundrum!
A Coroner delivered, with barely an inflection in his voice, a keynote address on 'Lessons to be learned from the Home Birth Cases in Vic and SA.' In this presentation, seven cases were reviewed, the common thread being that they had been planned homebirths, with either a registered midwife or a previously registered midwife in attendance. When considering risk factors such as previous big babies, previous caesarean births, and a twin pregnancy, the conclusion was that most of these cases should not have been planned homebirths; that the midwife had a duty of care to transfer care to an obstetric unit.
In 6/7 cases, the baby deaths were declared by the Coroner to have been
potentially preventable. The Coroner does not attempt to apportion
blame, merely to discover the facts, and to make recommendations. The Coroner's filtering of the information presented at the inquest failed to notice any possible reason that a woman might have had for trying to avoid a medically managed birth; any mention of her desire to hold her baby to her breast within moments of birth; or even any recommendations that maternity hospitals provide pathways for women who want to have a known and trusted midwife providing continuity of care within the hospital.
I want to be perfectly clear here: I cannot speak for either the mothers or the midwives. I am merely an onlooker, and I have read the Coroner's findings that have been put in the public domain. I am also shocked at the tragedies that precipitated these cases into the Coroner's court.
The points made by those who spoke about women's rights were either ignored or not understood by those who spoke from the professional duty of care perspective. The fact is that pregnant women have personal autonomy; that decisions do not have to be approved by, or even understood by, those who attend for birth.
The presentation following that by the Coroner was from the Victorian Perinatal Data Collection Unit. I noted down a point that was briefly made, without any further comment, that, of the approximately 900 perinatal deaths in this State annually, 63% are found to have potentially avoidable factors.
The loss of a baby's life is, thankfully, uncommon in our world. Yet it is one of the most heart-wrenching experiences imaginable. Whether the death is linked to homebirth or not, everyone needs to take what lessons are available from the facts of the case. I ask myself, what lessons have I taken from these seven tragic cases?
I believe the huge challenge that lies ahead for midwives and the whole maternity world is to find a balance between providing advice and care that protects the wellbeing and safety of the mother and child, while at the same time respecting the woman's decisions and choices. This is not going to be easy. It is an ongoing process, and demands trust and commitment between the midwife-woman, and the midwife-obstetric/hospital system. The paternalistic dictatorial style of hospitals has, in many instances, demanded submission to hospital policies and processes. This needs to change. The misunderstanding of risk in maternity care, as was clearly demonstrated in the cases reviewed, will likely continue to open the door for self-educated, internet-researched women to make the choice of birthing without a midwife in attendance. This needs to change, to include intelligent dialogue and planning that is specific to the individual woman/pregnancy. The misunderstood partnership between woman and midwife, as was also clearly demonstrated in the cases reviewed, may from time to time place unreasonable weight on the woman's choice, and devalue the midwife's skill and knowledge. This also needs to change, enabling midwives to practise more autonomously and accountably.
Women who engage a midwife to attend them at home for birth, having an identified risk profile, such as a previous caesarean, a previous post partum haemorrhage, or multiparity, or any of the other features that are classified as risk - these women, and these midwives, need support rather than being driven underground. The midwife who is ready to go with her client to the hospital, and continue supporting the woman's informed decision-making process within the hospital, will accompany that woman to the best birth that she can have.
And, we only want the best.
Your comments are welcome.
ps - this link to the story of a maternal death is, sadly, what we will see more of if we don't maintain a midwifery profession that is 'with woman'.