Jane Bradley: Pregnancy care is in a sickening state

Support for pregnant women remains severely inadequate for many who face difficulties, says Jane Bradley

Pro choice campaigners take part in a demonstration through Belfast city centre on April 30, 2016. Abortion prosecutions in Northern Ireland have forced the issue to centre of the campaign ahead of next week's regional elections, with unprecedented political support for an end to the current ban. Northern Ireland currently bans abortion in all cases except when the life of the mother is in danger / AFP / PAUL FAITH (Photo credit should read PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images)

We are not living in the Dark Ages, although it may sometimes seem like it – especially where pregnancy is concerned.

There is still a British nation where pregnant women are not allowed to consider an abortion – no matter what the circumstances of their pregnancy. In Northern Ireland, women are forced to travel to Scotland or England – at their own cost – to be able to carry out an abortion even if their baby was conceived as a result of rape or incest, or in a tragic situation where it is known that a foetus is so badly deformed that it will not live.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Across the Border, in Ireland, the situation is not much better, and this week there were protests against the country’s near-ban on abortion. Meanwhile, in Poland, the government’s attempts to backtrack on more relaxed abortion laws were last year narrowly overturned after mass public outcry.

Pregnant women are being failed. Women are being failed. It is barbaric to think that in 2017, females are having to contemplate travelling far away from home to be able to have the freedom to contemplate a termination of a pregnancy – which is never an easy decision for anyone, even with the support of medical staff and family around them.

Yet even closer to home, albeit less dramatically, care for pregnant women is also patchy.

Not usually for serious conditions – most women I know in Scotland who have endured life-threatening complications during pregnancy or labour, as well as many others who have suffered pregnancy loss, have been very well looked after by the NHS. But when the problems do not risk the life of mother or baby, women often suffer during their pregnancy with little or no support.

Last week, charity Pregnancy Sickness Support claimed many British women were being subjected to severe morning sickness unnecessarily.

There are drugs and treatments these days, the charity says, which are effective and safe. In the US and Canada, among other countries, the modern drugs are administered to a large proportion of women – and widespread studies carried out. They are deemed to be safe, yet many women on this side of the Atlantic who hint to their doctor or midwife that they would like to take them are told, often sternly, that it would be “better for baby” if a mother-to-be stays medicine-free while carrying a child.

While in a ideal world this would be true, the absolute horror of severe morning sickness should not be underestimated.

Personally, severe morning sickness has been a major factor in my family’s choice to stick at one child. I vomited multiple times a day for 18 weeks, with no let-up from severe nausea in between. I even threw up the 1.5 litres of water I was expected to drink before my 12-week scan, despite having dedicated the morning to sipping it as slowly as possible while lying in bed.

It became so normal to feel – and be – sick that I remember evenings at home, sitting in the living room with a plate of pasta on my knee, nibbling a few bites, then throwing up into a bucket I kept beside me, before going back to trying to eat again for the sake of my baby’s nutrition. Written down, I suppose it perhaps sounds do-able. A bit of nausea, how bad can it be? The answer is bad, really bad. You do not feel able to do anything normal. You spend all day every day literally feeling like you cannot carry on. The mental impact is indescribable. Some women who suffer from the extreme end of this common symptom even consider having a termination as a result.

I dragged myself to work almost every day during this period, reasoning that staying at home was not going to make me feel any better. I might as well feel horrific while attempting to do something useful, rather than lying alone in bed.

I was relatively lucky. There are women with full-blown Hyperemesis Gravidarum who for months cannot even sit up without throwing up. They become so dehydrated, suffer such extreme malnutrition that they and their babies’s lives are in danger.

At this extreme end of the spectrum, there is usually – but not always – medical intervention. Women are rehydrated in hospital and are perhaps given anti-emetics to try to stem the sickness enough that they can keep down sufficient food and drink to allow them to continue with the pregnancy. But it has to be that extreme for most medical professionals to even consider it.
After weeks of this hell, I threw myself on the mercy of my midwife, begging her to tell me if there was anything they could do, anything they could give me. She laughed. She actually laughed.

“Oh, have you tried nibbling on a ginger biscuit?” she asked, adding breezily: “It will pass, it always does.” I wanted to ram a ginger biscuit down her throat, but I was too busy trying to work out where the nearest loo was so I could enjoy my third vomit of the day.

Another desperate friend was told by her GP that she couldn’t possibly still be suffering from morning sickness as she was past the 12-week mark in her pregnancy. Instead, they said, she may have indigestion and suggested Rennies. Words fail me.

Pregnancy Sickness Support claims that all mothers want is for staff “not to doubt them if they say they are suffering”, as well as “basic, accurate information on medication” and for healthcare professionals to treat them with “dignity and respect.”

It is not that hard. Let’s try to up our game when it comes to pregnant women. They deserve it.