The current conversations have been prompted, in my mind at least, by my awareness of the movement that promotes a person's right to self-determination in health care, and particularly a woman's right to autonomy over her own body in the highly contested terrain of maternity care.
Here are a few real examples of that evasive entity, *choice*:
- Jenny is pregnant with her sixth child. She is a healthy 38-year old, who had a caesarean birth for her first, and has had uncomplicated births of her babies since then. She would really like to give birth at home, in water, but the (free - publicly funded) homebirth program from a nearby public hospital will not agree to homebirth because she is considered high risk (previous caesarean, multiparity >5).
Jenny inquires about private homebirth services, and thinks that the cost of $5,000+ is prohibitive, even with Medicare rebate of approximately $1,000. The midwives are also concerned that her risk status might put them at risk of mandatory notification to the regulatory Board.
Jenny inquires at the local public hospital, where she could receive free maternity care. She is told that she would not be permitted to use water immersion in labour, be managed as 'high risk', have continuous fetal monitoring in active labour, have IV access established in labour, and immediate active management of third stage after the baby was born.
Jenny feels she has no real choice. The system (public or private) simply does not support her choice to proceed naturally, and does not respect her desire to avoid what she considers to be unnecessary medical interference that could quickly lead to complications.
- Jean is pregnant with her second child. Her first baby was born three years ago, weighing 4 kilograms, and she had an epidural and forceps, and a large third degree perineal tear which took a long time to heal. Jean feels traumatised by her experiences in her first birth, and she feels that her marriage relationship has suffered, because she does not enjoy intimate contact, and tries to avoid sexual intercourse. She considers herself healthy, but she is over weight, and she has 'failed' the glucose tolerance test. The hospital advises that she needs a series of ultrasound assessments
of her baby's growth, and possible induction at 38 weeks if the baby
Jean is now 34 weeks along in this pregnancy. Jean's preference is for natural birth, and she discusses this with the hospital midwife.
Jean feels that she has no real choice. She could opt for an elective caesarean, or for an induction of labour, but the system does not have a pathway for her that supports and protects unmedicated natural birth.
- Jo is pregnant with her first child, and everything was 'normal' until the 35 week check when she was told that her baby was presenting breech - bottom first. She was told by her (private) doctor that she would be booked for elective caesarean at 40 weeks, unless her baby turned.
Jo has quickly checked out websites that address breech births, and joined social media groups, got hold of moxa sticks, and started positioning herself crawling on the floor with her bum higher that her shoulders to help the baby turn. She finds that there are a couple of obstetricians in town who are 'pro' vaginal breech birth, and a couple of public hospitals that support the option.
Jo feels that she has no real choice. Decisions will need to be made as she progresses along the road to the birth of her baby. Those decisions may be limited by the services available, the service providers, and the status of her baby as far as position, progress, and wellness are concerned.
- Jazz is pregnant with her third child, and is planning homebirth with the publicly funded hospital homebirth program.
Jazz understands that she has one choice, 'plan A': to proceed naturally without medication or other medical intervention, at home. If she needs to move to 'plan B' for any reason, her midwife will go with her to hospital, and Jazz will be able to make what she considers to be the best decisions from options available at the time.
A midwife has a clear duty, by definition and best practice, to support and protect normal physiological processes in birth, unless there is a valid reason to offer medical intervention(s). This is the DEFAULT position, that protects the safety and wellbeing of mother and child.
'Plan A' does not deny the woman's right to decline any treatment that is offered. But that is the woman's prerogative; not the midwife's. The pathway to good maternity services comes with respect for both the woman's voice, and the midwife's. There is no partnership if either the woman, or the midwife, feels unable to contribute honestly to the decision-making.
The midwife who does not apply health promotion/ best practice principles to their advice and protect that *Plan A* default position will probably contribute to the society's loss of professional skill required to work in harmony with the unique natural physiological processes in pregnancy, birth, and nurture of the infant. Once that skill is diminished or lost, the mother will find her *choice* has been seriously restricted to the medical options. eg professional de-skilling in breech vaginal births.
I have seen midwives overwhelmed by their desire to support a woman's choice, and ignoring or missing signs that a potentially life-saving intervention needs to be taken.
[A note to those who read this post. If you think I am referring to you, it's possible that I am.]