‘I would be scared to be a woman of reproductive age in Ireland’

A new Irish organisation, Midwives for Choice, aims to give women control over how they give birth. For barrister Elizabeth Prochaska, this is a human rights issue


Elizabeth Prochaska is a barrister at Matrix Chambers, one of Britain’s most progressive, high-profile legal firms. She is also a founder of Birthrights, an organisation dedicated to improving women’s experiences of pregnancy and childbirth by examining their human rights. Dignity and respect are vital at all points of our lives, she says.

Having her children, now aged two and five, changed Prochaska’s outlook.

“Before I had my daughter in 2010 I was a human rights lawyer, but I hadn’t had much to do with the rights of women, especially the vulnerability of women during pregnancy and birth.”

She became interested in the area not because she was treated badly herself – her midwives showed her a lot of respect – but because of something that would happen later.

“Soon after my daughter was born, the midwife who attended me needed some help with a disciplinary issue.” Prochaska found that there was an “ingrained suspicion of midwives”. As a lawyer, it “irked my sense of justice, so I started to represent other midwives and then I started to help women whose choices might not have been approved of by their medical carers.”

It is all about choice for Prochaska.

She was involved when the British court of appeal considered if it was a crime for a woman to drink during pregnancy. “They were being asked by a child, who had incurred fetal alcohol syndrome as a result of its mother drinking during pregnancy, to give the child money to compensate them.”

The court decided the mother had not committed a crime because the fetus had no separate identity to the mother, and the crime of poisoning has to have a separate victim. “The court found that you can’t say that the mother is poisoning a child when it is in utero as she would effectively be poisoning herself,” says Prochaska.

She argued for Birthrights during the case that a woman’s rights should not be lost when she becomes pregnant. Otherwise “pregnancy would make you distinctive and [a pregnant woman would be] in the control of the state in a way nobody else is”. The British court agreed with her.

Dublin talk

She will talk in Dublin at the launch of a new organisation, Midwives for Choice, on Saturday 30th Jan. She has no fear of accusations that she is putting an English, colonialist toe in pure Irish waters.

Colonialist? “That’s no way to think,” says Prochaska. “We’re all women. I don’t care if I’m an English woman and you’re an Irish woman; we’ve all got wombs. I don’t see it as an issue that’s about borders. It’s an issue about womanhood.

“We are both women in developed countries where the rule of law is ostensibly abided by,” says Prochaska. “We can’t be abused by our husbands. There are all sorts of protections given to us, yet you and I cannot make the same decisions about our bodies, and that strikes me as scary. Really scary. I would be scared to be a woman of reproductive age in Ireland.”

So what would reproductive nirvana actually look like? “Certainly in the UK, you would decriminalise abortion. You would enable women to make informed choices about whether or not they wanted to continue with that pregnancy.”

Starting with widely available contraceptive services would be ideal, she says. “You would also have widely available fertility services”, and make a full range of services available, from contraception to conception.

“Decisions about whether or not to continue with a pregnancy would be made in a fully informed way with a medical professional,” says Prochaska. “Then, through pregnancy and into birth, all women could make choices – about how and where she gives birth. Choices in everything.”

Reproductive nirvana

But can we afford this reproductive nirvana? “Oh God, yes. In terms of pure resources, it has been shown that giving birth in a midwife-led system or at home is way cheaper than the crazy, obstetric-led system we have at the moment. Choice is not more expensive in a reproductive sense.”

A woman’s right to choose a midwife when she gives birth, if that is what she wants, is fundamental to Prochaska and is why she supports Midwives for Choice.

A spokeswoman for the organisation says that it is “committed to the fundamental principles of respectful care and human rights that instate women as the central agent in reproductive and maternal healthcare”.

Midwives are fundamental to empowering women, says Prochaska. “Throughout history, and to this day, midwives have a way of working with women that is about respect and listening to that woman.”

She says that it is no reflection on doctors, but maternity services are “not about a cure. I think the debate between medicalised and natural childbirth is a red herring. It is kind of a patriarchal trap. It makes us all look like women fighting each other, saying ‘I want to give birth in this way, or that way’. It’s what we’ve been doing for 50 years and it’s a total waste of time.

“All women need a midwife, or they need forceps, or they need a Caesarean. It is not about the type of treatment, but about the quality of relationship a woman has with the person providing that treatment.”

Anyone who says that midwives have no role in the debate about abortion is wrong, Prochaska says. “Historically, midwives were the purveyors of abortion, contraception and childbirth. Midwives have always been involved in the whole spectrum of women’s reproductive choices. They were the wise women and the herbalists who helped you get pregnant or helped you get unpregnant. They were also the women who got burned at the stake.”

  • The Midwives for Choice launch takes place on Saturday 30th Jan 11.30am-1.30pm, at the
    O’Callaghan Alexander Hotel, Fenian Street, Dublin. The keynote speaker is Elizabeth Prochaska; also speaking are Aja Teehan, a complainant in Teehan v HSE; and Ailbhe Smyth of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. This is a free event, but tickets must be booked on eventbrite.ie
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