Birth Trauma Inquiry highlights devastating impact on women of poor maternity care | Fieldfisher
Skip to main content

Birth Trauma Inquiry highlights devastating impact on women of poor maternity care

Shivi Nathan

The terrifying reality of UK maternity services probably first became widely understood following public inquiries into baby deaths at Nottingham and Shrewsbury and Telford NHS trusts.

The sheer number of babies who died due to substandard maternity care was incomprehensible and the Government's initial response was to earmark more funding to recruit, train and maintain midwives with the promise to drastically overhaul and improve care of women and babies.

Fast forward seven years from the Ockenden Inquiry into Nottinghamshire and the findings from the first inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Birth Trauma will be presented to Ministers this week. 

The immediate response to the report from Health Secretary Victoria Atkins was, yet again, that the Government was 'determined to improve the quality and consistency of care for women' with NHS England's chief executive Amanda Pritchard describing women's experiences outlined in the report as 'simply not good enough'. 

You might question whether they honestly can be surprised by the findings given the appalling legacy of the past 20 years. What hopefully will galvanise them is the harrowing evidence from women living with the impact of a traumatic birth experience that lasts forever. 

Statistics estimate that 30,000 women a year in the UK suffer negative experiences during the delivery of their babies, with one-in-20 developing the type of post-traumatic stress disorders we generally associate with war or abuse. 

Accounts from women sustaining birth injuries, such as chronic pain and bowel incontinence, said it prevented them from working and destroyed their sense of self-worth. Others described their lives as changed forever by the responsibility of caring for children left catastrophically injured by medical negligence around their birth. 

'My life will never be as it should be," one woman told the inquiry. 'I never returned to work, I live a very secluded life, as friends and family shun you when you have a disabled child that they might not understand or are scared of.'

Tory MP Theo Clarke, who chaired the inquiry, herself broke down last October delivering a speech to the House of Commons when she recalled being rushed into emergency surgery after the birth of her daughter, believing she was going to die. She suffered a third-degree tear and underwent a two-hour surgery without general anaesthetic because of an earlier epidural.

Most chilling is the comment within the inquiry that poor care has become 'tolerated as normal'. The inquiry's authors have called for a maternity system 'where poor care is the exception rather than the rule'. A new maternity commissioner reporting directly to the prime minister is another key recommendation along with ensuring safe levels of staffing.

Overall, there are 12 recommendations from the report including, obviously, more midwives, obstetricians and anaesthetists to ensure safe levels of staffing; an emphasise to respect mothers' choices around giving birth and access to pain relief; the commitment to tackling inequalities in maternity care for ethnic minorities, particularly black and Asian women; and better access to specialist maternal mental health services to end the postcode lottery.

What happens next is that the Health Secretary will prepare the Government's response. Worryingly, though, her Women's Health Minister Maria Caulfield has already 'spun' the narrative by telling the BBC that the number of midwives was being increased and that the Government has 'already addressed' at least five of the report's recommendations. 

We have to hope that the accounts of women's devastating experiences giving birth become more than political fodder and generate the fundamental changes they deserve.

Partner Shivi Nathan specialises in birth trauma claims. She contributed to the latest edition of the book Pelvic Floor, Perineal and Anal Sphincter Trauma during childbirth.

Related expertise

Birth Injury Claims