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View from the street: Women's rights during childbirth are enshrined in law

PUBLISHED: 08:00 28 April 2018 | UPDATED: 12:08 29 April 2018

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Medical negligence lawyer Suzanne White has organised the Women’s Rights in Healthcare seminar on May 24. Here she explains why the informed choices of the mother during childbirth must take priority.

The rights of women during childbirth will be discussed at a seminar chaired by Tracy Brabin MP, on May 24.The rights of women during childbirth will be discussed at a seminar chaired by Tracy Brabin MP, on May 24.

2018 has been an extraordinary year for women. We are only in April yet there have been a number of high profile women’s issues in the limelight, such as the 100 years since women got the vote, the #MeToo campaign, and equal pay to name a few.

However, what has not been at the forefront of the news is women’s rights in health.

Women’s rights in health, particularly when giving birth, is one of the most important issues in women’s health - it is emotive and can be controversial; but do women actually know what their rights are? How does a woman want to give birth? What choices do they have? Does a woman have the right to choose a caesarean section delivery? What if her doctor advises against the care she wants? All these questions will be considered by women during their pregnancy and as a healthcare lawyer I am very used to speaking to women about all these concerns.

What is clear to me is that women do not always know their rights. I strongly believe that shouldn’t be the case and every woman should be fully aware of their rights well before they get anywhere near a maternity ward.

In one of my recent cases I dealt with a client who is a young, healthy and intelligent woman who had made it very clear in her birthing plan, and to the maternity team that cared for her, that under no circumstances did she want a forceps delivery. She initially attempted to deliver the baby without intervention but it soon became clear that she would need further assistance. The doctor did not listen to her pleas to have a caesarean, which led to a deeply distressing and ultimately failed forceps delivery and an eventual caesarean section anyway. As a result my client and her baby sustained injury with mum left deeply traumatised.

It seems that the mother was not the only one left shocked by the events that transpired with the midwife so disturbed by what she had witnessed that she felt compelled to document her concerns in a statement. The NHS trust has subsequently offered damages to my client and her son as a result of the care they received.

It is estimated that in the UK alone 20,000 women a year suffer from postnatal post traumatic stress disorder (PN PSTD). There are much wider implications, not only for these women, but for their baby, their families and society as a whole as these women will need continued support and counselling. Some of the risk factors for PN PTSD are documented as a lack of information and not being appropriately listened to - these risk factors all fit in with the need for a woman to be properly consented.

Women must know that they have choices when they give birth, and that those choices and rights, thanks to a recent case called Montgomery, are now enshrined in law. Since this case medical professionals have a duty to comprehensively seek the consent their patient; they cannot paternalistically decide what they think is right for the patient, the patient must have a say too.

Mrs M had diabetes mellitus when she was pregnant, which carries a risk of having a larger than average baby. As a result Mrs M was concerned and despite having a high risk pregnancy was not told that there was a 9/10 per centrisk of shoulder injury to the baby. During delivery the baby became stuck, suffered an injury to the shoulder, and was starved of oxygen causing brain damage. Mrs M maintained that she would have elected for a caesarean if she had been made aware of the risk.

As Baroness Hale - the first woman president of the Supreme Court - said in her ruling on Montgomery.

“Gone are the days when it was thought on becoming pregnant, a woman lost, not only her capacity, but also her right to act as a genuinely autonomous human being.”

Suzanne White is head of clinical negligence at Leigh Day solicitors.

* Leigh Day will host the Women’s Rights in Healthcare seminar, chaired by Tracy Brabin MP, shadow minister for early years, on Thursday May 24 1pm - 5.45pm at The Goldsmith’s Centre, EC1. For further information about the event or to book a place click here.

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