Meghan Markle will labour and deliver her first born away from the prying eyes of the British public – and press. The decision is both a powerful and positive one. It rejects the societal expectations that are reflected in our hawkish desire to see a woman in heels and a fresh blow dry merely a few hours after giving birth. Good enough to be paraded like a prize turkey whilst still experiencing afterbirth contractions.
It signals a woman fighting to change the narrative about how we view all women and their position in society. It also shows a black woman – a group more usually side-lined – taking charge of her own story.
It also shows bravery, when less than a week ago, Markle was criticised in one unfavourable story after another about her decision to “snub the Queen’s doctors” by choosing her own birthing team.
The story caused me to practically throw my laptop aside in disgust. The Mail Online and The Express’ front page headlines screamed their obvious disgust at Markle who had reportedly eschewed the “men in suits” by, wait for it, shockingly opting to choose her own delivery team for her first child. A choice automatically afforded to all women everywhere, except it would seem, to Markle. Despite the article going on to say that the “men in suits” would have a limited role in a normal birth, the choice still left them somewhat “baffled”. You could almost hear the disapproving tuts from Fleet Street.
This headline and many more like them, subliminally perpetuate the message that women are not and should not be in charge of their own health choices. Whilst on the surface appearing benign, the narrative that other people are better placed than women themselves to make health choices, continues to kill women on a daily basis. Gender inequality in healthcare is the focus of much attention within media and medical circles right now – and rightly so. Health statistics for women still lag behind men. What often lies behind this is a patriarchal system that puts women outside of their own health story. Practically, this means that women do not advocate for themselves, often suffering in silence or worse still, when they do speak up, they are not heard or believed.
Latest statistics reveal the true effect of this. The rate of increase in life expectancy for women in the UK is now slower than it is for men, women are less likely to be treated for a heart attack when they present with chest pain and are more frequently diagnosed as hypochondriacs than be given the correct medical diagnosis. And let us not forget that the situation is even starker for black women who, suffering from negative unconscious and conscious bias as well as the established gender imbalances are often neither seen nor heard, resulting in some of the worst health outcomes of all.
The report that an unknown female doctor could be appointed to a role traditionally held by men seemed to also carry a tone of criticism. In reality, women now dominate medical schools and the medical specialty of obstetrics and gynaecology, such that in the real world a female obstetrician is hardly the rarity that the media may have us believe. This fact is an important one to recognise as it encourages more women to enter the profession and more importantly, encourages female patients to discuss health concerns with the choice of female clinicians, openly and without embarrassment. Validation of a health professional comes not from Royal Accord but through the provision of informed, empathetic and considered healthcare for the individual in their care. So, if Meghan feels more comfortable with her own handpicked team, so be it. It may well save her life.
To be fair, those “men in suits” are excellent clinicians and wonderful colleagues but stories such as this one serve to uphold societal constructs and norms which only act to hold women in a place of receivership rather than ownership. Ultimately, this results in holding back the whole of society.
Women can make their own choices about their health and who delivers that care to them. So instead of headlines like the ones this past week, how about a headline that screams, “Woman makes her own informed choice about her healthcare”. Better yet, how about no headline at all, because in 2019, there should be nothing new or surprising about that.