Protecting human rights in childbirth

Registered Charity Number 1151152

SAFE Maternity Care Act

As the date of the next General Election approaches, we call on the next government to put an end to a maternity system in crisis.

  • We have the right to life
  • We have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.  
  • We have the right to make informed decisions about our body and our care.  
  • We have the right to choose where we give birth, how we give birth, and who is with us when we give birth.  
  • We have the right to equality, to be able to access these rights free from discrimination.  

Yet, in hospitals across the UK, these fundamental human rights are dismissed and ignored daily.  

  • SAFETY – A maternity system that seeks to do no harm and commits to protecting our psychological and physical safety and preventing trauma and death. 
  • ACCOUNTABILITY –  A maternity system that is held accountable to the law and the women and birthing people it serves. 
  • FREEDOM OF CHOICE – A maternity system that respects the rights of all of us to choose how, where and with whom we birth and make decisions about our bodies and care without coercion or violence. 
  • EQUITY– Care that does not discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone and recognises that systemic issues require systemic action. 

A new SAFE Maternity Care Act to put an end to a system in crisis.  

It’s time to start putting the rights of all women and birthing people first.    

Birthrights wants all women and birthing people to be able to access maternity care that respects our rights to make informed decisions about our bodies and care, free from discrimination, coercion and violence. We have the right to access a functioning maternity system that provides care which respects our dignity and choices throughout our pregnancy and childbirth; we have the right to bodily autonomy and self-agency; we have the right not to be discriminated against, dehumanised or coerced.  

Unfortunately, this is far from current reality for too many people, which is why Birthrights wants the next government to demonstrate a commitment to real change in maternity care by implementing new legislation that leaves no doubt over how our human rights apply to the UK’s maternity system. We’re calling it a SAFE Maternity Care Act – an act that ensures Safety, Accountability, Freedom of choice and Equity at the heart of the maternity care system. 

It means the government commits to developing the systems, institutions and individuals needed to proactively protect the fundamental rights of everyone using maternity care.  

In practice this means:

To avoid harm and achieve safety in maternity care, the starting point for NHS Trusts and hospitals must always be to uphold the rights of women and birthing people. This means listening to women and birthing people’s voices and providing appropriate information to ensure they can make informed decisions that are respected. It requires maternity staff to be adequately trained, supported and resourced to be able to provide relevant information, genuinely listen to women and birthing people without discrimination and coercion and offer person-centred care.  

To achieve this, women and birthing people must be at the centre of how maternity services are funded, delivered, designed, managed and regulated so that bodily autonomy, self-agency and informed decisions are always respected.  This requires all regulatory bodies, NHS leadership and senior managers in maternity to have a robust understanding of how human rights law applies to maternity care and why it is critical to the delivery of safe care.  

Safety in maternity care can only be achieved if the system is accountable to the law and the women and birthing people it serves. It requires everyone from Government to the frontline, regulators and managers to understand how the law applies to maternity care. It requires transparent and consistent data collection so that the experiences and outcomes of all women and birthing people are understood, and for all those responsible to be held accountable for systemic, institutional and individual failings, rather than placing blame on the bodies of women and birthing people. It requires transparent decision-making, clear escalation procedures, proper investigations, regulation, and meaningful improvement plans.   

We need accountability mechanisms that enable the experiences of women and birthing people facing multiple forms of oppression to be heard and accounted for; not to be ignored.  

A long history of patriarchal medical practice in maternity care, years of austerity and dangerous precedents set during the Covid-19 pandemic, have resulted in restrictions on choice, degraded and dangerous services and an arbitrary postcode lottery that determines who is able to access those services and how people are treated by the healthcare professionals they encounter. 

All women and birthing people must be able to access their fundamental rights, whatever their background and wherever they live – this includes being able to access the full breadth of maternity services, choose how, where and with whom they birth, make decisions about their bodies and their care, and be treated with respect and dignity. 

Whilst the fundamental rights of all women and birthing people during pregnancy and birth are under threat for everyone,  those experiencing multiple and overlapping oppressions, including women and birthing people from racially minoritised communities, those who are LGBTQ+, Deaf and disabled, have English as an additional language, do not have British citizenship, who are in prison or detention, face even more barriers to accessing basic maternity care.  

We should all be able to freely access and realise the full breadth of our fundamental rights, regardless of who we are and where we are. Person-centred care should be the starting point of the maternity system and provisions must be made that recognise individual needs.  

The UK’s maternity systems are rooted in patriarchy, white supremacy and oppression which harm all women and birthing people, but disproportionately impact the most marginalised. 

The statistics on racial disparities in maternal outcomes have changed little over the two decades that ethnic disparities in maternal mortality rates have been published. A lack of national action to address these systemic issues, combined with a continued centring of whiteness in medical education and practice means that not only do Black and Brown women and birthing people face racial microaggressions and stereotyping and a lack of respect for culture and religion by the healthcare system, but their serious medical conditions are not identified or appropriately treated, and their voices, decisions and concerns are not heard or respected leading to harm, trauma and death.  

Too often hospitals and trusts adopt policies, guidelines and practices that restrict or violate the rights of racially minoritised communities. And discriminatory policies, guidelines and practices also restrict and violate the rights of marginalised communities including those facing oppression or multiple oppressions based on disability, neurodivergence, sexuality, gender identity, nationality and race.  

The result is a maternity service that is failing the communities it is supposed to serve. This is a national crisis that cannot go on. 

Trusts must take account of the disproportionate impact of decisions, guidelines and policies on some women and birthing people including Black and Brown women and birthing people, people with English as an additional language, LGBTQIA+ people and those with additional and specific needs such as those living with trauma, disabilities, and/or neurodiversity.  And they must take bold and proactive action to ensure that maternity services meet the needs of all the women and birthing people they serve, and that all women and birthing people are able to fully access all their fundamental rights.

The voices of the most marginalised women and birthing people need to be centred throughout training, guidelines, policy, practice and legislation.

How can you help?

Change is possible if we ACT together. You can support our SAFE Maternity Care Act and play a role in improving maternity care by these actions: 

  1. Subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media to find out next steps in our campaign for a new SAFE Maternity Care Act and how you can help. 
  1. Let us know if there are ways we could work with your organisation or community to make this Act a reality through action@birthrights.org.uk.
  1. As a registered charity, we rely on the donations to support our work to ensure the rights of women, birthing people and their supporters are at the centre of maternity care. Please give today to make a difference!