Saturday, March 29, 2014

the myth of choice

1983 - working night shifts a the Women's
For a couple of decades now, *choice* has been a pillar of the natural birth movement.

An organisation that I am a member of has the vision, that
"Every woman can choose how, where and with whom she births."

This vision has troubled me for some time.  Today I am attempting to critically explore the notion of choice, and whether it is desirable or imaginable that every woman choose "how, where and with whom she births."

Firstly, some historical considerations:
  • The Fortelesa (Fortaleza) Declaration (1985) on appropriate use of technology in birth challenged interventions, from shaves and enemas, to inductions of labour.  This seminal document also declared that "The whole community should be informed about the various procedures in birth care, enable each woman to choose the type of birth care she prefers".  *CHOICE!*
  • Changing Childbirth in the UK (early 1990s) declared that women want the 3C's: *choice*, control, and continuity of care.
  • A call for *choice* of place of birth (home/hospital) and care provider (such as individual midwife or the maternity system) was clear in the Australian National Maternity Action Plan (2002).

At the same time,  twenty years ago,
  • emerging trends in medical research led to the Cochrane Collaboration, defining the reliability of evidence;
  •  UNICEF and World Health Organisation introduced the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, with a key document being the Innocenti Declaration  of 1990. 
  •  various state and territory governments around this country were conducting broad reviews into birthing services, and producing their reports. (eg Having a baby in Victoria 1990)  These reviews sought consumer comment as well as professional.
  •  WHO prepared a series of basic publications on maternity care, including Care in Normal Birth: a practical guide (1996).  This document brought a consensus statement that "In normal birth there should be a valid reason to interfere with the natural process"

During the past two decades the world has experienced the digital revolution.  Twenty years ago, in 1994, few households had computers: the world wide web and email had only just been invented.   This phenomenon exploded communication and access to reliable information.  Our home went 'on line' in the early 90s, with a (very slow, and unreliable) dial up connection, and we were leaders in the field.   Prior to that, if I needed to send an email, I would ask my husband Noel to send it from his office at the university.  He kept up with the expansion of knowledge via inservice education, and a very helpful secretary, Jean.  He became the 'IT' expert in our home, until our children absorbed the knowledge and quickly spoke the language, as children do.  (but I have digressed from my topic!)

Twenty years ago, professional peer reviewed scientific publications were held in libraries, and accessed by scholars and the intelligencia.  Today, there is an inexhaustible wealth of knowledge at the tip of our fingers, from our computers, tablets, and phones.

Twenty years ago, information about natural childbirth was passed from teacher to student couples in highly motivated childbirth education.  Today women join social media groups where they share everything from their nausea and indigestion, to ultrasound pictures.  These groups, as well as personal blogs and microblogging, have introduced a degree of sharing of opinions, and introspection ('navel gazing'), that would have been unimaginable when person to person communication was limited to a telephone or over the back fence or a tea room at work.

So, what about choice?

In discussing choice in childbirth with colleagues and other interested folk, I have been a little surprised to observe that the woman's right to decline (a treatment/intervention) is often perceived to be the same as a choice in maternity care.  A woman's autonomy in any care situation (whether it's her toe nails or the birth of her child) is often limited to the little word "No!"

By way of example:
Jill is in hospital, in labour with her first baby.  Jill has been told she needs a Caesarean, because she has been labouring without adequate progress, and the doctor is concerned that her labour is obstructed and her baby is becoming distressed.

Jill does not want a caesarean birth, but she has no other options at this time, other than to do nothing, and that may lead to injury/death to her baby.  She has planned for a natural birth, because she believes that's the best way for her and her baby.  Jill has written in her birth plan/preferences document that if she truly needs a caesarean birth, she wants her baby's umbilical cord to remain uncut, and the placenta delivered intact (known as 'lotus' placenta).  She wants her baby to be placed skin to skin on her chest, and to remain with her in the operating room and in recovery so that breastfeeding can be initiated without delay.  She is aware of 'natural' caesarean births, discussed on her social media forum, and likes the idea. 

Jill communicates her wishes to her doctor.  If that doctor has previously supported women's choices in this way, he/she might be willing to agree.  But Jill is a patient in a public hospital.  The doctor who is performing the surgery is being supervised by the consultant obstetrician, and does not feel able to accommodate such a radical plan.  The hospital's policy is to send the baby and the father to the nursery while mother is in recovery, and Jill is told that the hospital is not able to provide suitable staff to accommodate her choices.  Jill has run out of options.  She needs the help of the hospital to get her baby safely born, and she finds to her surprise that the notion of choice doesn't work in this situation.
 Jill thought, prior to coming into labour, that she had chosen:
how: a natural birth 
where: in the local public hospital
with whom: the hospital staff at the time
'how' Jill gives birth is something that cannot be predicted, whether she chooses a private hospital with the most popular obstetrician according to the online rating system, or the guru homebirth midwife who has amazing skill and, according to social media, can do all sorts of things to make birth work as it's supposed to.  The best Jill can find out when she is choosing her care provider is an approximate rate of spontaneous unmedicated births that person reports for woman in their care.

I (frequently) remind women that they have only one choice in childbirth - to do it themselves, or to ask someone else to take over. This is the case, whether it's avoiding induction, having a vaginal breech birth (vbb), a vaginal birth after caesarean (vbac), a physiological 1st, 2nd or 3rd stage. (Haemorrhage and death are also physiological). 

There's an obvious rationale for the skilled midwife in these equations. A primigravida who wants to have a natural unmedicated birth, booked at Caesar's Palace, in the care of a knife happy OB, may have chosen where and with whom she births, but doesn't have much chance of achieving the 'how'.  

Choice is also dependent on money $$$.

The woman who chooses a caesarean for her own (not clinically indicated) reason can get a private doctor to deliver her baby if she can pay the doctor's fee (Medicare + out of pocket) and the hospital fee. But she has very little say about who else is in the room - her partner is likely to be welcome but may be asked to step outside. 

If we have a vision that every woman should be able to choose how - including elective C/S - do we think our public health $ should be supporting that so that women who can't afford the co-payment are also able to rock up and *choose*?

I am very concerned about over-spending of health $.  

The only sustainable policy direction in maternity care is to protect, promote and support the natural processes in birth wherever that is reasonable. The workforce needed as experts in achieving this goal is midwives whose duty of care by definition includes "promote normal birth". This does not remove the woman's right to make an informed decision to decline or accept the plan. Medical and surgical options should of course be available to those for whom they are likely to lead to better outcomes, but that's not a matter of the woman's *choice*.

Your comments are welcome.


Denise Hynd said...

Dear Joy
Another historical aspect of choice is the move of birth from the home to hospital was done before we knew about the cascade of labour & birth hormones. The monitoring and other aspects of being a'patient' in a hospital means that this environment is the least supportive of these hormones, so our culture has developed an artificial or inappropriate understanding of labour and birth. Otherwise our culture would promote and support healthy women to labour and birth at home, whilst unwell pregnant women would go to places in hospitals where they would not feel afraid or monitored to birth as close as naturally as possible. Those who did need surgical intervention would have it in way which is respectful of the mother-baby physical and emotional connections!

Joy Johnston said...

So true, Denise.