childbirth partner

A ban on childbirth partners still stands at one Montreal hospital

Pregnant women in Quebec have been assured of their continued right to a birthing partner during COVID-19, but there’s a double standard.

This past Friday, Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital decided to ban all childbirth partners (spouses and doulas) during labour, delivery and the postpartum period. This measure was put in place to protect the staff and patients from COVID-19 after a selfish dad-to-be hid his Coronavirus symptoms from the hospital so he could see his wife after she gave birth, potentially exposing the entire maternity ward and staff to the virus.

Soon, every pregnant woman in Quebec was sounding the alarm, terrified that this directive would be extended to all provincial hospitals. A petition, signed by close to 90,000 outraged people, made the rounds, demanding the decision be reversed. A collective letter to the editor, signed by law professors and published in Le Devoir, reminded everyone that being accompanied by a partner during childbirth is a woman’s right, supported by the World Health Organization (WHO).

After two major New York City hospitals banned partners and family during childbirth, Governor Andrew Cuomo overturned that decision on Saturday and ordered all hospitals in the state to allow women to have a partner present during childbirth.

Premier François Legault put a stop to the speculation on Monday when he made it clear his government had no intention of extending the ban to other Quebec hospitals. He and Health Minister Danielle McCann reassured the media that all pregnant women who show up to give birth at a Quebec hospital will be accompanied by their childbirth partner of choice. With one sole exception: the Jewish General.

I saw the relief and the joy of many on social media when that was confirmed. And I was puzzled and a bit disappointed in the lack of solidarity. Sure, women who weren’t scheduled to give birth at the Jewish had been reassured. But what about the many who were patients there, and who now had to decide either to go at it alone or to scramble at the last minute to make other arrangements?

And don’t be fooled by the reassurances. Just because Legault and team said that women have the option to transfer their file elsewhere doesn’t mean that they can or will be able to in time. Our healthcare system is backlogged, short-staffed and overburdened on a good day. Can you imagine what it’s like during a pandemic that has overwhelmed and exhausted every worker, every department, every hospital?

Can you begin to imagine what it would be like for a stressed out and exhausted pregnant woman navigating the system right now and trying to arrange a different physician in a different hospital at the 11th hour?

The bottom line is this: if the government is stating that women scheduled to give birth at the Jewish General now have the option of giving birth elsewhere, it’s the government’s job to ensure this can happen, that resources are made available, and that obstetricians don’t turn them down.

“What’s the big deal?” I see some people flippantly asking. “Women in my day gave birth on their own, without their husbands in the room, and it was totally fine.”

Was it, though? Are you reminiscing about the days when women needed their husband to co-sign for a credit card and flying to Europe meant inhaling someone’s cigarette smoke for nine hours straight? Yes, let’s all gather round and discuss the “glory days,” Susan…

First off, “I underwent the terrible thing, so you should, too” is a distasteful thing to say. A lot of things used to be “the norm” back in the day, but that doesn’t mean that we should wish that people suffer through something just because we did and survived.

I know people are panicked and scared and overwhelmed by this pandemic, but women don’t have to get thrown under the bus here. Options are available. Humanity should still be an option. Women’s rights to pre- and post-natal care should not be so willingly given up.

In our collective panic, it’s important not to underestimate both the short-term and long-term consequences of banning birthing partners, such as postnatal depression, difficulty bonding and infant feeding problems. The medical staff, as kind and knowledgeable as it may be, simply can’t replace a partner focusing solely on you.

I know some might think that these women demanding their partners with them are spoiled and soft. But Google “obstetric violence” and you will find countless testimonials from women sharing their traumatic birthing experiences of not being listened to or taken into consideration during the most painful and frightening experience of their lives.

In some ways, I feel like this banning of childbirth partners is an extension of similar decisions that routinely take place in most North American hospitals; decisions that limit risk and increase efficiency at the cost of a woman’s rights to have the kind of birth she sees fit.

“I’m asking that we look for other solutions,” says Valerie Pelletier, a doula. “In Holland, they are converting hotels into pop-up birthing centres.”

Giving birth is a painful and highly stressful experience, even under the best of circumstances and with no complications arising. Having your significant other there to hold your hand, to reassure you, to support you in the way only your partner can — and to be present for the birth of their child — cannot be measured in words. Having a doula present, someone you can trust to guide you through it, offer support and recommend different labouring positions is comforting and stress-alleviating.

“Birth is not a medical event, it’s a physiological event that happens in a medical facility,” says Pelletier. “Low-risk cases shouldn’t even be in hospitals. This crisis is only highlighting the underlying problem which is a lack of midwifery care and how intervention rates are insane in hospital care.

“If a birthing person is alone, without a partner to advocate for them, we are opening the door to obstetric violence and we are foregoing informed consent and decision making,” says Pelletier.

“Don’t even get me started on what will happen to POC, LGBTQ, members of the Indigenous community or people who do not speak English or French. On a good day, the odds are stacked against these folks in terms of birth outcomes and maternal mortality rates.”

Pelletier is right. There is extensive literature pointing to significant racial disparities in maternal mortality. Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Systemic barriers like poverty, unemployment and discrimination make it an uneven playing field, particularly in the U.S. And while there are fewer studies done in Canada to prove that discrepancy, it’s still very much an issue here, too.

Another important element: birth trauma and the link to postpartum depression. I know it’s tempting to push all that aside and consider it secondary when a pandemic is killing people left and right, but it matters.

“We don’t have the resources for one-on-one care in our hospitals,” says Pelletier. “It’s one of the big reasons why people hire doulas, because they don’t want to be alone. Giving birth requires the body to open up, to produce a perfect hormonal cocktail of oxytocin and that can’t happen in stressful situations. Cortisol (the stress hormone) shuts the system down. We are going to be seeing an increase in intervention, epidural rate and C-sections.”

I also suspect that, if the government doesn’t make sure that women at the Jewish have a real option to go elsewhere, some will be opting to go at it alone at home, even unprepared, or showing up at other hospital ERs during labour. I don’t see how either of those options will benefit anyone involved.

Even in these scary times, women deserve high-quality, respectful maternity care before, during and after childbirth, and that includes having a partner of choice present during childbirth. So, while it’s great that most Quebec women have been reassured that they will have their partners with them during their labour, they need to show some solidarity and keep applying that pressure until the women with doctors at the Jewish find a way to have them, too. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.

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