One of the single most important tenets of healthcare ethics is that of informed consent. Situated in ethical, legal and human rights frameworks, informed consent at its core represents the ability to retain autonomy over one's bodily integrity and to decide freely who can and cannot touch them. While consent at its simplest means being able to say yes or no, facilitating informed consent requires a more nuanced understanding of a dynamic process that, for midwives and other healthcare professionals, might seem challenging. The aim of this article is to provide a brief introduction to historical context and key legal cases that set the foundations for that which constitutes informed consent. This article focuses on what ‘informed’ means in relation to consent and, importantly, aims to dispel myths around receiving informed consent in contemporary midwifery practice.
A consistent issue across many contemporary reports of failing maternity services in the UK (Ockenden, 2021; Kirkup, 2022) is the mismatch between aspirations for informed consent and the reality of how women and birthing people experience the process. Informed consent serves as a central and guiding principle of safe and respectful maternity care, continuing to be referenced explicitly in various iterations of national policy and guidance (NHS England, 2016; 2021; 2023; NHS, 2019). Despite this, repeated themes of poor informed consent practices negate aspirations towards personalised maternity care and have shone a stark spotlight on disrespectful practices in the UK and across the globe. The aim of this article is to briefly discuss the historical context and introduce some key legal cases that underpin the rudiments of what does and does not represent consent (Table 1), focusing on the ‘informed’ element, contextualised within contemporary maternity practice.
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