A recent review of maternity care at Shrewsbury and Telford Hospitals has shown that it may have contributed to the death of over 200 babies and nine mothers. Commentators have rightly pointed to this as a failing of the National Health Service. However, in reviewing the subject and looking for root causes they might also have pointed to feminism and the fetishisation of natural childbirth.
The Ockenden report shows that the dogmatic pursuit of natural birth by midwives, sometimes against the wishes of the parents, was an important contributory cause of excess deaths. There were echoes of a similar scandal at Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust where midwives who developed a strong group mentality, labelled themselves the ‘Musketeers’ and pursued natural birth at any cost. Midwives frowned upon asking others for advice and ‘ran their own ships in their way’. The results were sometimes disastrous for mothers and babies.
The Royal College of Midwives had a whole campaign around what they call ‘normal birth’ though they are now backtracking from that quite rapidly. Childbirth is inherently risky; however, midwives and obstetricians have different standpoints on what constitutes risk and that leads to some of the problems in communication between them. Midwives have struggled to work alongside obstetricians, paediatricians and anaesthetists who are all parts of the multi-professional team that women may need during their care.
To discover where feminism comes into the picture you have to look even further back in time. Some feminists argued that the medicalisation of childbirth was a manifestation of male control of women’s bodies rather than an attempt to make childbirth as safe a possible for both mother and baby. They went on to ague that female midwives knew best and there was a duality between the patriarchy embodied in obstetrics and feminism embodied in the practice of midwives. There was a time more than fifty years ago when the majority of obstetricians were men and midwives were women and you could perhaps make that argument. That said, many of those men cared passionately about the safety of the women and babies under their care. For fifty years or so the overwhelming majority of obstetricians have been female and if it was ever the case that obstetrics was ‘patriarchal’ it has not been true for a long time.
You don’t have to look far for examples of feminist ‘scholarship’ or activism, corrupting the practice of childbirth. For example, the paper Subversive acts and everyday midwifery, enjoined midwives to adopt feminist principles. No mention of evidence-based practice or teamwork is to be found here.
Similarly, an academic paper from the British Journal of Midwifery The F word: Midwifery students’ understanding of feminism, was published as recently as 2018. The point of view of one student that ‘While midwifery is women-centered care, I don’t think midwives have to be feminists to provide this.’ was seen as problematic. Nowhere does the paper contain data on how to make childbirth safer and less painful for women and babies. The paper repeats the assumption that medical expertise embodies partriarchal values and for that reason, midwives should seek to resist those medical models of care.
For more of this sort of theorising, which seems to have been endemic within academic midwifery, see the DPhil thesis of Tracy Cooper, Perceptions of the Midwife’s Role: A Feminist Technoscience Perspective. Apparently…
Women and midwives connected with technology through material-semiotic connections, which has led to cyborgification within a consultant led model of care and birth environment. Women overwhelmingly perceived that birth was safer in hospital, due to the presence of technology and doctors; doctors were perceived as the decision maker and the midwife as a ‘handmaiden’.………An advancement of Haraway’s theory has been made from the emergence of the way in which the ‘being’ midwife morphs into a ‘doing’ midwife when she feels that she has to conform to the medicalised culture of the environment or from women’s expectations of their birth experience.
This kind of nonsense that foregrounds feminist theory and contains almost no empirical data, has been prominent within the midwifery literature. It is clear that midwives have been encouraged to see other members of the medical team, anaesthetists, paediatricians and obstetricians as embodiments of the patriarchy and thus part of the enemy despite most of the medical workforce in those specialties being female.
It is clear that feminist-leaning newspapers have struggled to report this scandal. They can’t pin the problem on men and as a result, it has received remarkably little coverage considering the scale of the problem. The Guardian, Independent the BBC have been surprisingly restrained in their coverage. I haven’t heard any calls for a culture change among midwives despite 200 hundred unnecessary deaths. Contrast this with the attacks on the culture Metropolitan Police in response to one death. The only journalist to link progressive activism with deaths at the maternity unit in Shrewsbury and other hospitals was Juliet Samuel writing in the Daily Telegraph. In her article The NHS is in thrall to a deranged progressive ideology that is harming mothers and babies, Juliet agues that it was more than an obsession with natural births but a service that put ideology ahead of the well being of mothers and babies.