Original blog by Marie Booker on 8th March 2021 for Make Birth Better
A few weeks ago, an NHS Trust based in the south of England put out a tweet stating that freebirth (giving birth without medical assistance) was illegal. This is not true. The tweet was quickly challenged, and later withdrawn. But it led to the idea for the team at Birthrights of launching a short campaign to raise awareness of women and birthing people’s basic rights in maternity care. Birthrights’ Programmes Director Maria Booker shares what they are.
First of all, let’s be clear that our campaign was not about pitting women and birthing people against healthcare professionals. Rights are not trump cards. However over the last year, more than ever, we have seen the importance of a shared understanding of what the bottom line is in terms of the law. So we launched #BasicBirthRights #TheBottomLine. The full campaign can be viewed on the Birthrights website. The ten #BasicBirthRights we highlighted were as follows:
You always have the right to say no to any intervention, test or treatment (for you or your child).
When you make a request of a maternity service, they must start from a “yes” and give a good reason for saying no.
You have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.
You have the right to have all your basic needs met, e.g. pain relief, food, water.
You cannot be compelled to go to hospital and it is NOT illegal to give birth without assistance.
You have the right to be supported and to be together as a family.
A foetus does not have rights of its own until it is born.
Individual exceptions should always be considered. Blanket policies are rarely lawful.
Maternity services policies must be based on all the relevant evidence and the decision making process must be transparent.
You have the right to complain.
“Sometimes unlawful behaviour is driven by the very best of intentions”
Understanding Although it is important that women and birthing people understand their rights in maternity care, at Birthrights our focus has been on ensuring that maternity care professionals, who look after thousands of pregnant women and birthing people each year, understand their human rights obligations. We hear quite regularly of cases where even experienced healthcare professionals have not understood the law and have caused real and lasting trauma. Distorted view For example, we have recently helped a women who was referred to social services due to her decision to give birth at home, and also helped a family being physically prevented from leaving a hospital after making an informed decision to discharge themselves. In these examples, staff have a distorted view of their moral and legal obligations. Human rights law empowers healthcare professionals to be able to respect women and parents as autonomous people. Fair Sometimes unlawful behaviour is driven by the very best of intentions. Women have been told time and time again during the pandemic that an exception to visiting restrictions cannot be made for them because it wouldn’t be fair on others. No doubt services genuinely believe this is ‘fair’. However this is not the vision of fairness set out in the Equality Act 2010 as well as human rights legislation which requires individualised care in order to ensure a fair outcome for everyone. Legal context This means that women who have suffered a previous loss, or who have a physical disability, or who don’t speak English as a first language, as examples, MUST have exceptions made for them to ensure they get the support they need to put them on an equal footing with others. This is why we feel it is so important to ensure all healthcare professionals working in maternity care understand the legal context in which they operate. Take a look at the #BasicBirthRights campaign here or read this post here from Birthrights Trustee Rebecca Schiller about your maternity rights in the light of the pandemic. If you would like to find out more about Birthrights training on human rights in maternity care, send a message to email@example.com