Many would argue that the choice of home birth is a human right. As recently as 2010, the European court ruled that the choice of home birth is a European human right (please read on to the end of this post for the source of that piece of information).
Whatever the woman's right in choosing to give birth in her own home, that 'right' is at best meaningless if the woman is not able to access professional midwifery services. In the absence of a suitably skilled midwife, the woman who hopes to exercise her 'right' to home birth must either give up the notion of home birth, or proceed without professional midwifery care.
In this brief essay I am seeking to apply the notion of a woman's right to choose to give birth in her home, to current Australian situations in which midwives may feel that they are not
Midwives who attend home births independently are facing increasing pressure to conform to external professional protocols which seek to define who is, and who is not 'suitable' to be in the care of a midwife. Such documents become instruments of a society's expectation on women giving birth, effectively forcing conformity on the midwife, and indirectly on the woman.
The current protocols (also referred to as guidelines and position statements) in relation to a midwife attending a woman for planned home birth, include:
AHPRA Safety and Quality Framework for Privately Practising Midwives attending homebirths
ACM Position Statement on Homebirth Services 2011
ACM Guidance for Midwives regarding Homebirth Services 2011
Other codes and professional documents, such as the ACM National Midwifery Guidelines for Consultation and Referral (Second Edition 2008) that apply to all midwives can also be used to restrict the scope of the midwife's practice.
The broad principles underpinning contemporary midwifery are defined by the International Confederation of Midwives in the Definition of the Midwife (2005 – it was revised 2011), which stated
“The midwife is recognised as a responsible and accountable professional who works in partnership with women to give the necessary support, care and advice during pregnancy, labour and the postpartum period, to conduct births on the midwife’s own responsibility and to provide care for the newborn and the infant. This care includes preventative measures, the promotion of normal birth, the detection of complications in mother and child, the accessing of medical care or other appropriate assistance and the carrying out of emergency measures. ... A midwife may practise in any setting including the home, community, hospitals, clinics or health units.” [Note that this paragraph is unchanged in the revised (2011) ICM Definition of the Midwife.]
This definition is a core statement in Australian midwifery codes, eg the Codes of Ethics and Professional Conduct for Midwives in Australia.
Midwives around the world, in all levels of socio-economic and health status, grapple with the home birth issue. In recent generations in developed countries, the professionalisation of midwifery has progressed hand in hand with the medicalisation of birth. Australian midwifery education and regulation is a good example of this phenomenon. Under current laws, midwives are the like poor cousins of nurses in the professional regulatory scene. It may be difficult for midwives to have complaints against them investigated and heard by professional peers who have any recent midwifery practice experience. Determinations by investigators in cases of professional conduct may have little relevance to the real world in which the midwife works. The focus of the medicalised midwifery on risk factors and mainstream 'broad brush' risk management in hospitals can easily overshadow any acknowledgement of the woman's informed decisions. The well known Monte Python skit, 'The Meaning of Life' applies: the woman on the bed calls out "Can I do anything?" and is told without delay "No, you're not qualified!"
It is worth noting that the ICM Position Statement on Home Birth emphasises the social/family aspect of birth, as distinct from a medical condition.
“Childbirth is a social and emotional event and is an essential part of family life. The care given should take into consideration the individual woman’s cultural and social needs. There is a consequent need and demand for care that is close to where and how people live, close to their birthing culture, and at the same time safe. The World Health Report 2005 states that ‘There is a value in the rituals surrounding birth, and in keeping these as a central feature of family life. The setting for birth may therefore be the woman’s home, a local health facility or, if medical or surgical care is likely to be needed, a hospital. Furthermore a recent (2010) the European court judgement declared that the choice of home birth is a European human right.”
[For more detail on the European Court decision, click here]
The woman who, notwithstanding her knowledge of her own particular 'risk' status, asks a midwife to work with her to protect and promote normal physiological birthing in her home, is as entitled to professional midwifery care as the woman who chooses care in a birth centre or hospital. The conversation between the midwife and the woman will address the woman's plans as to how she hopes to give birth to her baby, and what will happen if her midwife advises transfer of care to an obstetric unit. This is not new or unusual in midwifery. Every woman who comes into spontaneous labour has to make decisions about when to go to hospital, or when to ask the midwife to attend, if home birth is planned.
In conclusion, I do not want to seem to encourage midwives to encourage 'at risk' women to see home birth as their only option. In my experience, a woman with twins, or breech presentation, or BAC, who is clear that she intends to hold onto 'Plan A' unless a valid reason is given for intervention whether she is at home or goes to hospital (with her midwife) to give birth; this woman will make an informed decision that she believes is in the best interests of her baby, her family, and her own wellbeing. This woman is enabled to take responsibility for her family's social, emotional, and physical health in a new way, in a special partnership with her midwife.
The midwife is also enabled to fulfill her duty of care to the woman, without exposing herself unnecessarily to potential investigations for professional misconduct.