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Informed Consent in Childbirth: Making Rights into Reality - Page 2

Author // Hermine Hayes-Klein

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Informed Consent in Childbirth: Making Rights into Reality
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What Should Informed Consent Look Like?

When I am asked by doctors or midwives what informed consent should mean in birth care, I tell them that it should consist of three parts:

Inform. Tell the woman about what you observe to be going on at this moment in her pregnancy or birth. Tell her about all of the healthcare alternatives that are available to her, not just the one you think she should choose. Tell her as much as you know about the risks and benefits of each alternative, and what kind of evidence exists for this information. This part of the discussion should be a transfer of objective facts, and you should leave your opinion out of it.

Advise. Tell the woman what you think she should do. Tell her why. This is a good moment to express the limits of your own skills and knowledge. Are you advising a cesarean for breech because you haven’t been trained in breech births? This is a time to mention that. This part of the discussion can be an expression of your subjective opinion about what you would counsel the woman to do.

Support. Support the woman in the exercise of a decision between the alternatives. This includes the decision to not follow your advice. It isn’t informed consent unless the patient has the ability to choose an alternative other than the one that the provider recommends.

Informed consent is the bridge between evidence-based care and human rights in childbirth. The information is evidence—all patients have a right to be informed about the evidence regarding the healthcare alternatives available to them. The consent is the human right, the legal right, the constitutional right. Pregnant women, like all citizens, have the right to informed consent.


Taking Responsibility

Many doctors work to provide the women they serve with genuine informed consent. A clarification of the legal authority of birthing women should serve to protect the ability of practitioners to do this work without fear of “liability” backlash. When a provider supports women in genuine informed consent, that provider recognizes that his own responsibility ends where the patient’s agency begins. You can only be responsible for something you control.

With rights come responsibility. If a patient is provided with reasonable information about the risks and benefits of alternatives, and then supported in her choice among those alternatives, she cannot fairly claim later that the provider should have compelled her to make a different decision or that she couldn’t have understood the risks well enough to make a decision. Informed consent rests upon an assumption that, despite the esoteric nature of medical knowledge, ordinary people can assess their medical alternatives and make a decision about them— including a decision to go against their doctors’ advice.

As everyone concerned with civil rights understands, there is no right without a remedy. In places where birthing women are not treated as if they have the legal right to informed consent, lawyers are needed to ask courts to address this problem.

But in other places, it should be enough to remind the people attempting to support a birthing woman that there is a legal reason to treat her as competent and capable of expressing what she, personally, needs to give birth to her baby. A reconsideration of the central importance of informed consent to childbirth has the capacity to shake up entrenched dysfunctions in the maternity system. Every woman has an interest in clarifying the fact that women are the ultimate authority in the childbirth decision-making process.

With a national cesarean rate of more than 32 percent, all women have an interest in ensuring that they have the right to make an informed decision about the risks of cesarean for their own births, and that every intervention offered—up to and including surgery—may be freely accepted or freely declined. Many patients freely choose to say, “Doctor, tell me what to do.” But that, too, is an autonomous choice to follow a practitioner’s advice, and must be recognized as such. A “yes” is not meaningful unless you also have the right to say “no.”

Birth matters. Women matter. Women are competent and capable of making good decisions for themselves and the babies they birth, and they have the legal right to be supported in that process.


Problems with Informed Consent

This is a smattering of typical stories received regularly by organizations like ImprovingBirth.org and Human Rights in Childbirth. Names have been withheld for reasons of privacy.


“At 41 weeks, the midwife on call for my appointment told me that I would be induced the next day. I asked what the risks of inducing or not inducing would be, at this point, in my case. (The ultrasound had showed everything fine with the baby, fluid and placenta.) She responded by saying, ‘Look, you are about to become a mother. It’s time to stop thinking about yourself, and start thinking about your baby.’ That was the end of the discussion. I was induced the next day.”


“With my first, they hooked me up to Pitocin after delivery without mentioning it. With my third, I arrived fully effaced and 10cm dilated. The nurse was about to give me a shot of Pitocin until my doula told me that she was prepping the shot, and I told her no. She said that the doctor had called it in as an order, and it wasn’t negotiable.”


“The OB stripped my membranes at my 38-week appointment, without warning, explanation, or consent. I was in huge pain during and after. When I asked why that vaginal exam hurt so much, he told me what he had done. I asked him why he hadn’t told me first, or asked if it was OK? He said, ‘Most women want me to do that, and I assumed you would too.’”


“The doctor cut an episiotomy, without notice, after I expressly forbade it. I have not trusted doctors since that day. Traumatizing. I felt assaulted.” “After the birth of my son, my doctor manually removed the placenta without first telling me what he was about to do or asking my permission. It was a brutal and horribly painful procedure and I felt overwhelming shock and horror. He told me that I should just be happy to have a healthy son. I am pregnant again and terrified to give birth again after my experience.”


“I’m a registered nurse, and informed consent was one of the biggest things I was taught during nursing school. And then I graduated and started working in maternity, and all of a sudden informed consent was important to no one. I can say from experience that while patients have to sign an informed consent, their signatures don’t follow a real discussion of both risks and benefits. So they might think they are informed; sadly, they are not.”


“When the ultrasound showed twins, I was referred to a high-risk practice. The only discussion of ‘options’ was the date when my cesarean would be scheduled. When I tried to ask about how the risks of twins birth applied in my personal case, I received frowns but no answers. I explained that I wanted to attempt a physiological birth unless there was evidence that intervention was needed. I was told that this kind of birth would not be allowed at any hospital in the area. When I said that I was looking for a midwife who could support a physiological twins birth, the OB said that she would have no choice but to call Child Protective Services.”


“Most of the OB practices in my area make patients sign an agreement in advance to continuous monitoring and a lot of interventions; they were up front that they would not support natural birth. One new hospital advertised itself as being woman-centered, focusing on women’s ‘choices’; they offered water birth. I chose that hospital for my fourth baby. My OB promised that I would have freedom of movement and that, even if they had to monitor me, I wouldn’t have to lie on my back.

My labor went fast; when I arrived at the hospital, I was just about ready to push. They said water birth wasn’t available. The nurse told me to lie on my back on the bed. I told her that I couldn’t do that, and that my doctor promised me freedom of movement. She said that my doctor wasn’t on call, and it was a rule that I had to lie on my back. I was on my hands and knees on the bed, trying to explain that I wouldn’t lie on my back but that my baby was coming. My water broke. The nurse hit a button that made lots of people run in. She knocked my arms out from under me and started twisting and pulling me onto my back. Somebody was also pushing on my baby’s head to hold him in.

I was using my foot—it was instinct—to try to push her off of me. I can’t describe the position I was in, on my side in mid-air, struggling. He came out then, and I had not only a fourth degree tear, but pudendal nerve damage that put me in bed for 6 months on medication…with four children under the age of 7. I’m still in a lot of pain. When I tried to talk to the hospital about what happened, I was told that ‘risk management declined my request for a meeting.’ The doctor, who was present for 1 minute of that birth, wrote in my notes, ‘Unfortunately, patient was not able to act in a controlled manner. She was all over the bed.’”


Pathways Issue 40 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #40.

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