Mumsnet. Our survey: what women told us about care on postnatal wards. 2017. (accessed 27 November 2017)

The 97m bill for ‘midwife shortage’. (accessed 27 November 2017)

Does midwifery breach human rights?

02 December 2017
Volume 25 · Issue 12

Earlier this year, the online forum Mumsnet released the results of an investigation into its members' experiences of postnatal care. Mumsnet chief executive, Justine Roberts, was then invited to share the results at the Royal College of Midwives annual conference in November. During her introductory speech, Roberts outlined the stark findings: in a survey of 1200 women, 61% of respondents had been unable to access food when they needed; 45% had been unable to access pain relief; 22% had been unable to access water; and 19% had been unable to access washing facilities (Mumsnet, 2017). The audience reaction was palpable, the murmurs and whispers indicating the changing mood in the room. The wave of celebration and euphoria that the writer and actor Stephen McGann (best known for playing Dr Turner in the BBC drama Call the Midwife) had built throughout his rousing speech on the shared values of love, care and compassion in midwifery came crashing down as the audience were confronted with these damning statistics. The profession celebrated for its kindness was then associated with denying women some of their most basic human rights.

Those who analyse statistics regularly will be familiar with the various ways in which data can be manipulated, extrapolated or complicated. Statistics can be objective, or they can collapse into a tangled mess from which mere threads are held up for inspection. Questions can be raised as to who responded to the survey and why, and the suitability of online studies, but without seeing how the study was conducted, it is impossible to cite any of these factors as the reason why these statistics are so high, and the severity of the results must be taken on board.

The question and answer session that followed the speeches made all these points and more. Some agreed that the state of postnatal care could, and should, be improved, while others expressed frustration that midwifery was again being attacked. The comment that undoubtedly had the most impact, however, came from one delegate who argued that if women were left lacking food, water and other basic needs, then their midwives were right beside them. Her conclusion, that ‘midwives will tell you: they go hungry, they go thirsty, and they go above and beyond to provide care for women’ was met with vigorous applause.

Despite appearances, Stephen McGann's passionate praise of midwifery and the Mumsnet findings are not mutually exclusive. The estimated shortage of 3500 midwives in England alone (Triggle, 2017) is leaving midwives stretched thin, unable to give the care that women need, or that midwives enter the profession to provide. In a show-of-hands poll at the British Journal of Midwifery conference this year, almost every delegate had had shifts where they had gone without food, water or a visit to the toilet. The Mumsnet survey has brought the issue of neglect in postnatal care to light—rightly so—but failed to highlight the midwives who endure similar conditions on a daily basis. As it stands, midwifery does breach human rights, both for women and midwives, and the only way that this can be resolved is with increased funding and more staff. The profession has to care for itself, or it cannot care for others.