This latest offering in my irregular series of guest posts is this interview with the inspiring Paula Cleary. Doula, Birth Activist and Founder of Birthplace Matters, Paula manages to find time in between home educating five children to support birthing mothers and raise awareness of the disparities of opportunity and choice that birthing families have to contend with. I am proud to have her visit The Birth Hub. So with no further ado, I’ll hand you over to Paula. Enjoy!
Why are you a birth activist?
To me, it’s very simple: Women have a right to make choices on behalf of their baby, before that baby is born. Those choices don’t begin only once caregivers are done telling her how, where and when to give birth, and she has returned home with a babe in arms. If a woman chooses that the place where she wants to bring that child into the world should be home, there should be trained midwives freely available and a support system in place as in other countries where homebirth is seen as a normal part of life. It’s not important what policy makers or in fact anyone else besides the mother would choose for themselves in the same situation – this is not their body, their baby, their family, or their story.
Giving birth in one’s own home is the most normal thing in the world and in 2017, should be a much safer prospect than at any other time in history – especially so when appropriate support is given and not withheld. But this isn’t always the case – as hospitals are functioning more and more like businesses where profit, productivity and not being sued are primary motivators, and caregiving and human rights drop lower down the list of priorities.
In an era where a profit-driven American style model of healthcare is slowly taking over the NHS, it’s truly important that policy-makers who influence maternity services recognise the truth of what is happening and find ways to uphold women’s rights in spite of it. It must be very difficult when there are so many influential and powerful business forces pressurising them from above, with targets and so on. But we mustn’t forget who the health service is for – the public.
The collapse of homebirth services around the country due to these market forces is nothing less than criminal. As the head of Birthplace Matters, I will continue to do whatever I can to fight for the continuation of reliable, sustainable homebirth services, so mothers who choose to give birth at home, and their babies, are not compromised or forced to give birth alone.
How does it make you feel?
I wish I could say that this work was rewarding and stressful in equal measure, but truthfully it is mostly quite stressful! Watching what is happening in the NHS I sometimes feel like I am witnessing a slow-motion car-crash, and feel powerless to stop it. The safety statistics for mothers and babies in countries that have been taken over by the privatised model of healthcare just don’t hold up as being something we should be aspiring to. Of all the developed countries, America scores extremely poorly for maternal and baby safety outcomes. If we truly care about those, we should be asking ourselves, which maternity care models are safest, and how can we emulate them? The hard facts are, that mothers and babies are having the safest experience of pregnancy, birth and the first years, in those developed countries that support homebirth and where it is actively encouraged as a safe and sensible option. If policy makers claim to be pro-mothers, pro-babies, pro-safety and pro-choice but copy the poorest models in the developed world, then it can only be that they are being shortsighted, greedy or both.
This makes me feel angry. When we know what the safest models are, and our government blindly marches the other way, it’s very frustrating.
When funding for providing adequate numbers of midwives is squeezed but insurance companies and big pharmaceutical companies profiteer from selling their products into the maternity services resulting in more medicalised births than are necessary, it’s very frustrating.
Luckily I have a very patient husband who listens to my frustrations and is always calm and gentle in his answers to these big questions. He has held me more times than I care to count as I cried during times of receiving floods of messages to the Birthplace Matters campaign from mothers and midwives expressing their sorrow at homebirth services being unavailable. After three years of campaigning in King’s Lynn, they finally listened and brought the homebirth service back. If it happened there, it can happen anywhere.
The reward for me is when mothers personally thank me for doing what I do, bringing their voices and experiences under the nose of influential people who have the power and potential to change things. Sometimes parents know they won’t have any more children but share their stories in the hope it will help change something for others. And sometimes there is an urgency – they share their birth stories in the hope that their upcoming or future births might go differently if people in maternity services read their stories and can learn valuable lessons from mistakes made by others.
By the same token, it’s also really great to be able to show off the outstanding care that mothers have received from their midwives in the NHS or independent sector, and hold up those stories as a model of excellence for care at home.
It gives me hope when I receive messages of support and thanks from people who work at senior levels within the NHS, or in maternity services generally, and they tell me to keep going. That gives me the strength to keep doing this unpaid but compelling work.
What do you want to achieve?
I want policy makers to be faced with the truth and consequences of their decision making, and for them to hear the voices of real women and their families affected by the laws they pass, the policies they write, and the decisions they make in boardrooms and meetings that honestly change lives.
If I can get them to listen to women’s experiences and let them sink in even just a little so they pause and ask themselves whether they stand for women’s rights or against them, I have done my job properly. Obviously, others do this too, campaigning for women tirelessly, so we are not alone, and perhaps between us all, reason will prevail!
The simple fact is, that if we don’t keep pushing for homebirth rights, this option will disappear – and it isn’t logical for that happen. It isn’t statistically safer for women to go onto the hospital conveyor belt, as the Scandinavian countries show. We have to do everything we can to fight for our rights to be at home, whether we personally would do that or not, because it is a human right and a woman’s right. Babies being born in Scandinavia, Holland and the other homebirth-friendly countries are proof that it’s time to ditch the hysteria and rhetoric of a few vocal critics because statistics tell us all we really need to know about how safe homebirth can be when it is not being undermined by business interests.
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Thank You Paula! I was marvellous to hear your thoughts on the state of maternity services in the UK at the moment. Like you, I feel passionately that our only hope is to be guided by the evidence that providing choice and protecting the rights of all parents to become informed and consider those choices is the only way to build a service that is fit for all. Providing continuity of carer with caseloading models of midwifery care is the quickest way to achieve that.