OPINION: Women must make the decisions on rules around childbirth

Liz questions why decisions impacting on women and childbirth have been mainly made by men

Liz questions why decisions impacting on women and childbirth have been mainly made by men - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

I remember when I was pregnant with my two sons that there was an old joke women used to tell. 

"If men had to have babies, birth would be pain free by now."

How we laughed.  

It’s true, though, isn’t it? 

Another of my favourite discussions was around pain relief. Women are literally brainwashed, mainly by other women I’m afraid, into thinking that unless you go through utter agony during the birthing process, you have somehow let yourself –and your baby - down.  

But let’s just imagine a man with, say, a large growth inside his stomach sitting down with his consultant and discussing pain relief options for its removal. 

"You can have an anaesthetic of course, sir, but I really wouldn’t advise it," says the doctor. 

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"Oh?" says the man. "Why not?" 

"Well, you’ll recover much better if you just let us whip it out," the doctor says, briskly. "And there’s a miniscule chance that if you have it, things will go wrong."

"Won’t it hurt?" asks the man in a faint voice. 

"Men have been having growths removed for centuries," the doctor says dismissively. "What are you, a man or a mouse?" 

At this point, the male patient would be asking if the reason he isn’t allowed to have an anaesthetic and will have to endure unspeakable pain is because it costs more for him to have suitable pain relief.

But his doctor will have moved on to speak to the man in the next bed, muttering to herself about why men always have to make such a fuss.  

This scenario is a fantasy of course because it would never be the case that a man would be expected to go through such a hellish experience if there was a way to avoid it. Women, however, are supposed to be made of sterner stuff.  

This is because decisions about female health care have, generationally, largely been made by men.  

Emma Barnett, the rather brilliant presenter of Woman’s Hour, this week took health minister Maria Caulfield to task after the Ockenden review revealed the greatest maternity scandal in British history.

Women are dying, babies are dying. And only 1% of maternity services in the UK are rated outstanding in terms of safe care.  

1%! Imagine only 1% of schools being considered outstanding? Wouldn’t there be a national outcry? But because it’s women, who cares? 

I listened to Maria Caulfield saying ‘No, the NHS isn’t sexist’ in the same breath as saying that there is quite clearly a problem of ‘the voices of women and girls not being heard’. 

So not listening to women and girls isn’t sexist? That’s semantics. She just didn’t want to brand the NHS sexist, just as whenever I’ve said something is sexist to men of my acquaintance, they will fall over themselves to deny it because to be called sexist is apparently worse than the sexist act itself.  

I don’t want to knock the NHS here. I’m a fan. But it is evidently sexist, just as society is sexist, because when policies and decisions are mainly made by men, the impact those decisions have on women simply does not occur.  

I’ve lost count of the number of men who said to me post-lockdown that they were desperate to get back into the office rather than work from home.  

I assume this is because, to them, the idea of not being able to stride about telling people what to do is emasculating and being at home with their families all day long drives them up the wall. 

For the women I know, on the other hand, being able to work from home was a godsend. Finally, we were able to parent and work at the same time, juggling the school run, meal times and office tasks without having to pretend, as we used to have to do prior to lockdown, that our children do not exist and therefore could never get in the way of our ‘commitment’ to our jobs.  

Neither the men nor women in my life are being pernicious here. They just see things their way, the way that affects them. And it is mainly men who get to decide whether we work from home or not, undoubtedly assuming that everyone feels the same way.  

But when it comes to health care, it doesn’t matter whether the intent is pernicious or not. It matters that when decisions are made about female health care, about maternity and funding and waiting lists, those decisions aren’t made by people who think, ‘well it won’t affect me’ or ‘it can’t be that bad.’ 

I’m telling them now, it is that bad. The Ockenden report is that bad. Time and again women were ignored. Some of them, and their babies, died because of it.  

Most of this is because people follow the roads that have always been followed and those roads have been largely laid by men.

But it’s time to lay a new road, where there can be no more assumptions about what women can put up with. Most especially if it’s something you will never have to put up with yourself.