This story about a woman’s home birth after 3 caesarean sections (HBA3C) caused a bit of a Twitter storm earlier this year. OB Prof Jim Thornton has written about his involvement here – his post and the comments below it will give you a sense of what the outrage was all about. What they won’t tell you is that a significant number of maternity service users and professional advocates active in the #matexp campaign called for an end to the storm, just as they are calling for an end to disrepectful care and divided professional camps. Their work is very worthy of your attention.
What interests and concerns me is that criticism and debate around this woman’s story seems to centre on:
- the woman’s decision to birth her baby at home attended by midwives, after having had three previous caesarean sections; and
- the woman’s memory that the midwife “told me I COULD have a natural birth no matter how many sections I’d had!” – and the near universal interpretation that this permission (for lack of a better word) equates to reassuring her that it was somehow the safest or the best option.
Conspicuously absent is discussion about the woman’s description of care leading to her first 3 caesarean sections .. “As I was naive I thought I had to do what they said” .. “I was determined to have my VBAC. Until the doctor told me I was going to kill myself and my baby. So a scheduled CS was made for 38+4.” In my experience of working with women requesting support for what some might call extreme birth choices, disrespectful, coercive and often non-evidence based experiences of maternity care usually precede such apparently extreme decisions. Moderate risk-taking behaviour by a woman keen to collaborate with her care providers has been over-ruled by someone who feels they know best.
Strictly speaking, her midwives were correct: a woman CAN have a natural birth no matter how many sections she has had .. or she can try. This descriptive statement says nothing about the risk/benefit balance of such a choice, which her caregivers would certainly have discussed in detail. Women are supported to choose the mode of birth which is best for them, or they aren’t. Women are supported to choose the location of their birth, or they aren’t. ‘Risking out’ is an entirely different model of decision-making. And supporting women to exercise their own power and autonomy in low- to moderate-risk situations will potentially create fewer high-risk situations further compromised by lack of trust and respect between women and caregivers.
I would like to see more professional discussion around how we counsel women making very complex birth choices. This conversation is often difficult for health professionals because it requires an admission of vulnerability. The nature of complexity means several things could be going on at once, some of which may be new and unfamiliar and thus require more time and consideration for an appropriate response. But the nature of birth is that a crisis can emerge very quickly, and that time may not available. Experience helps. But who has a hefty bulk of experience supporting VBA3Cs? Experience of complications is particularly valuable in such work – but how many midwives who have actually experienced a uterine rupture at home are still practising? Professionals in these situations are always out on a limb.
Does this mean health professionals should never support women making choices which increase the complexity of caring for them in labour? What should professionals’ attitudes be to such choices? One tweeter opined that the NHS should not support VBAC’s at home, because brain damaged babies cost the NHS a fortune and, “There is a limit to what you can do with other people’s money.” What exactly did the woman in question do with ‘other people’s money,’ except use the minimum required for such a birth? Should a woman be forced to have surgery because otherwise her baby might cost the health system too much? Is this really a route we want to go down as a society?
All of the outrage about women making apparently ‘risky’ birth choices contrasts with societal reactions when men make make similarly risky lifestyle choices. Stories about mountain climbers always send a chill up my spine, and one that particularly affected me was the disappearance of Jean-Christophe Lafaille during his ill-fated winter climb up Makalu in 2006. I casually stumbled upon an article in some large-circulation magazine, containing a haunting photo of his wife and 4-year-old son. I was struck by the look of loss and longing in their eyes, probably because in 2006 I had two sons of my own of a similar age. I often wonder how his wife and son are doing now.
While mountain climbers are not immune to criticism from their own community as well as those outside it, they are also glorified and funded by large companies. They usually climb with teams of people, so it is not just their own lives they are responsible for (although in the case of J-C L it was). The captivating stories of their exploits are used to promote merchandise. Even people who would never dream of scaling Makalu find their tales inspiring. The makers of the film Everest, due to be released this week, are banking on it.
Perhaps Jean-Christophe Lafaille can help shed some light on the essential humanness of risk-taking and some women’s deep desire for contact with their most basic – and essential – self:
“I find it fascinating that our planet still has areas where no modern technology can save you, where you are reduced to your most basic – and essential – self. This natural space creates demanding situations that can lead to suffering and death, but also generate a wild interior richness. Ultimately, there is no way of reconciling these contradictions. All I can do it try to live within their margins, in the narrow boundary between joy and horror. Everything on this earth is a balancing act.” (reference)
While maternity services are about safety, they should never be about enforcing some presumed collective version of what is safe onto everyone, suppressing in the process the inherently creative and often risk-taking human spirit, as well as the potential discovery of benefits in these non-mainstream choices. Nations have mountain rescue services because people will continue to climb mountains. And women will continue to want to birth their babies, sometimes in extreme circumstances. I am comfortable with my role ‘on the ground,’ so to speak, providing the standardised care which institutional systems offer and most women are happy with. I am also comfortable supporting women who metaphorically want to scale a mountain, and I will continue trying to find what sort of equipment, sustenance, maps and guidance will help them be as safe as possible while being boundary-testing humans in all their glory. I hope that maternity services can find a way through which enables more women to ‘be themselves’ in birth, as safely as possible, with an open acceptance by women and health professionals that in some instances, this may in fact come with some greater risk. I hope that maternity services can provide care which meets women’s spiritual as well as physical needs, and that judgements and coercion can recede into the past. Every woman who gives birth – however she does it – is a hero.
(Originally written on 12 April 2015. Publication postponed due to professional blizzards.)
Related resources –
You may be interested in this article, co-written with Mariamni Plested. Plested M, Walker S (2014) Building confident ways of working around higher risk birth choices. Essentially MIDIRS 5(9):13-16 – (Archived at City Research Online)
See also the Mama Sherpas film