Independent Midwives, the only alternative to NHS maternity care available in the UK, are currently under threat. This Monday - 25 March - they are taking to the streets of London in protest at a EU Directive that requires all registered health professionals to have mandatory insurance. Independent Midwives (I.M's) won't be able to get this insurance - due to their low numbers and the potentially high cost of claims the premiums would be prohibitively expensive - and unless the Government answers their call to help them find a workable solution, they face becoming illegal and extinct from October 2013.
I first came across I.M's during my second pregnancy in 2010. Having had a hospital forceps delivery with my first baby that, both physically and emotionally, took a long time to recover from, I knew the impact that a birth experience could have, and planned to have a home water birth with baby number two. For me, home was the place where I would feel safest, and where I felt this secure feeling would maximise my chances of birthing without unpleasant intervention.
However, my local maternity system changed during my second pregnancy. 'Community Midwives' became obsolete, and were replaced by a 'bank' system in which you were seen for antenatals by one of a large number of midwives from the area. I never met the same person twice. For a home birth, I was told, there might not be a midwife available to come to me, and even if there were, it was very likely that she would be a complete stranger. Even the midwives themselves were dissatisfied, and warned me that it also meant that the midwife sent to me in labour might have little or no experience of home or water birth.
All of this added a new layer of anxiety on top of my existing fears about a repeat 'feet in stirrups' experience. There were so many unanswered questions about who would be sent to attend me at this pivotal moment in my life. I felt this really mattered, and was intrigued when a friend suggested I look into the option of an Independent Midwife. After a few phonecalls, local I.M, Chrissy Hustler, came to our house and spent a whole evening talking things through with myself and my partner as our daughter slept upstairs. When she left, we turned to each other and said, 'Right, that's decided then!'. There just seemed no question of making any other choice now that we had seen what Chrissy could offer.
This turned out to be one of the best decisions of our lives. Chrissy, and her colleague Caroline Baddiley, made the birth of our second daughter a day that we will never forget - for all the right reasons. In spite of my fears they gave me the confidence to trust my body, and helped me to see birth as something safe and normal. They encouraged me to allow my then two year old daughter to be a part of the experience, and having her dip in and out of the room as I laboured, at one point with a bunch of hedgerow flowers for me, was simply magical. It seemed the room was filled with love that day, and I birthed my second daughter powerfully and joyfully and without difficulty.
This wonderful service comes at a cost: an I.M charges around £3000, which for some people would be out of the question. However, in cases of hardship, I.M's often lower their fees, offer barter arrangements or allow spread payments. For others, it is perhaps a question of priorities - a small sum in comparison to the amount many spend on weddings, cars or holidays. In our case, although our income is relatively low, we felt that this was an investment we were happy to make. A birth that empowered me as a woman and as a mother, and that gave our baby the gentlest possible introduction to our family and to the world - this was what we paid for, and this was what we got.
Independent Midwifery is a birth option that needs saving. For starters, without it there will be no alternative to the NHS, leaving a system that is already struggling and overstretched with a monopoly on UK childbirth. With I.M's currently the only place for women to turn if they have 'higher risk' pregnancies, and, for example, they want to deliver a breech baby or twins at home or naturally, the loss of I.M's will mean that birth options narrow and even risk disappearing completely. Whatsmore, linking insurance to registration has worrying implications for women birthing in the NHS too - for who knows what might happen once insurance companies have a say in our childbirth choices?
If a solution can't be found, and I.M's become illegal, this Autumn I'll be one of the last UK women who are lucky enough to enjoy what David Cameron has described as the 'gold standard' of midwifery care. I'll know my midwife, Tara Windmill Robson, isn't insured, but, having got to know her, I am certain that she is unlikely to be 'negligent' in her care of me - I trust her. She is passionate about birth, and gives me devoted, continuous care - which I think makes you a lot less likely to make a mistake than an insurance policy ever could. Let's hope that the powers that be can understand this and find a way to keep Independent Midwifery - and birth choice - alive for the women of the future.
Petition the UK Government: click here
March and Protest in London on 25th March: Choose Your Midwife, Choose Your Birth
Facebook campaign group: Independent Midwives UK
More info on how the legislation will affect NHS midwives and women birthing in the NHS.