Politics of birth

Interested in home birth, hospital birth or private midwifery care? Questions or comments? Email Melissa Maimann or call 0400 418 448. Link

After five hours of active labour, Kate gave birth to her second, healthy baby boy. Holding him tenderly she is oblivious to the drama unfolding ... She is hemorrhaging.

Her uterus has failed to contract after the birth causing massive blood loss ... the registrar tugs at her umbilical cord in an attempt to remove her placenta. Unable to do so he proceeds manually. There is no explanation, sedation or consent as he plunges into her uterus.

Meanwhile a midwife has been instructed to ‘wring out’ her uterus by gripping her hands deep around Kate’s stomach. Kate is screaming in pain and her partner begs them to stop. Instead he is removed from the room and their baby is taken away ... What happens next is hazy for Kate as she passes in and out of consciousness. But what is clear is since that day, four years ago, Kate has been managing posttraumatic stress. Unable to go back to hospital her following two births are at home with no medical practitioners present.

“I know it sounds reckless but ... We just can’t fathom going in to the hospital because that previous experience had been so bad,” she says.

“... I felt an unassisted homebirth was safer for me than going back to hospital to let them do the things to me that they did that time.”

Kate is now planning her fifth pregnancy and wants an independent midwife to attend her birth at home. She has been advised to seek a collaborative agreement between her midwife and the Women’s and Children’s Hospital (WCH) as per new Federal laws governing homebirths.

Called the National Health (Collaborative arrangements for midwives) Determination 2010, they were passed by Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon days before the election was called. They state that for an independent midwife to access Medicare and insurance they must have an obstetrician agree to care plans created for clients.

However when Kate contacted the WCH she was told that they “do not participate in collaborative agreements”. In a statement to The Adelaide Review the hospital says: “The public-funded Homebirth strategy from the Commonwealth is part of the broader National Maternity Services Plan which is yet to be endorsed by the Health Ministers of Australia.”

It reads like a straightforward strategy for insurance purposes, yet it has been met with confusion and anger. Firstly, insurance providers are yet to create a product that allows independent midwives indemnity while attending a homebirth.

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (RANZCOG) does not support homebirths and believes women who choose them are putting the birth experience above that of risk. RANZCOG President Dr Edward Weaver welcomes the new legislation and hopes it will curtail the number of high-risk cases that do birth at home.

He believes: “Virtually every obstetrician would have had an experience where he’s been called in to a situation where a woman has been brought in to hospital by an independent midwife and has had difficulties dealing with that situation.”

In 2008 there were 115 planned homebirths or 0.5 percent of births in South Australia. While 94 of those occurred at home, 21 women transferred to hospital for care before they could birth.

RANZCOG advocated for collaborative agreements in submissions to the Maternity Services Review, which informed the legislation. However they concede they cannot make their members adhere to them.

And here lies the problem: a midwife needs to have a collaborative agreement to remain in practice, but there is no requirement on an obstetrician to participate in an agreement. This threatens the ability of women to access midwifery care at all, and threatens the midwife's ability to remain in practice. At a time when there is an acute shortage of midwives, these moves only mean that there'll be fewer midwives left to care for pregnant and birthing women and new mothers and babies.

Australian College of Midwives Vice President Hannah Dahlen has found obstetricians will not enter into these agreements because they do not want to take responsibility for a midwives’ practice.

It should not be a case of an obstetrician needing to take responsibility for a midwife's practice. Midwives are autonomous and regulated practitioners. We do not require an obstetrician to be responsible for our practice any more than an ENT specialist, cardiologist or orthopedic surgeon is responsible for a GP's practice.

“If our most moderate and collaborative obstetricians are telling us that they are not going to be entering in to signed agreements,” she says. “Then we are potentially stymieing the reform that is going to be rolled out from November.”

Yet one of Dahlen’s greatest concerns is that the reforms go against the World Health Organisation (WHO) definition of a midwife. The WHO states a midwife promotes a natural birth, can detect complications and is able to carry out emergency procedures if required. Hannah is concerned these new laws will end up seeing “one practice of medicine veto and regulate another”.

Christine is an independent midwife with close to two decades of experience in the maternity sector. She has birthed hundreds of babies both within a hospital setting and independently. More than 20 women who want to birth at home have employed her until April 2011.

“I’m happy to work alongside a doctor when it is required but I do not agree, and no midwife will agree, that it is ok for them to sanction our practice,” she claims. If this does not get resolved she is adamant homebirths will go underground with women birthing with unregistered midwives.

... RANZCOG and the Australian Medical Association deem homebirth a high-risk proposition. Of the 202 perinatal deaths in 2008, one was in a homebirth setting. In June the State Coroner ruled to investigate the circumstances surrounding a baby who died at a homebirth in 2007. While this was widely reported in the media, the coronial inquest of an obstetrician who lost two babies to ventouse extraction at the same time was left unreported.

“If a baby does not make it into this world, and not every baby is going to, and it is a midwife’s domain, (they) are really crucified,” says Christine. “But for doctors to lose babies and make mistakes, it is a very different thing.

South Australian MP Frances Bedford is an advocate for a woman’s right to birth at home. She was unable to be interviewed for this article but said in a statement to The Adelaide Review: “(I) find it extraordinary that a woman choosing caesarean section without any medical need is apparently acceptable to the medical fraternity (with Australian taxpayers funding most of those costs) yet a woman choosing to maximise her chances of health and wellbeing through homebirth is discriminated against.”

As this debate continues in the medical fraternity, Kate remains sceptical she will have the birth she wants. Instead her partner has become versed in birth advocacy.

“We should be able to share everything we need with (a midwife) and same for the hospital,” she says. “Our partners should not have to go in there and be aggressive and advocate on our behalf.” ...

Melissa Maimann, Essential Birth Consulting 0400 418 448