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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Maternity care providers’ perceptions of women’s autonomy and the law

Sue Kruske*, Kate Young, Bec Jenkinson and Ann Catchlove

Author Affiliations

Queensland Centre for Mothers & Babies, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD, 4067, Australia

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BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 2013, 13:84  doi:10.1186/1471-2393-13-84

Published: 4 April 2013

Abstract

Background

Like all health care consumers, pregnant women have the right to make autonomous decisions about their medical care. However, this right has created confusion for a number of maternity care stakeholders, particularly in situations when a woman’s decision may lead to increased risk of harm to the fetus. Little is known about care providers’ perceptions of this situation, or of their legal accountability for outcomes experienced in pregnancy and birth. This paper examined maternity care providers’ attitudes and beliefs towards women’s right to make autonomous decisions during pregnancy and birth, and the legal responsibility of professionals for maternal and fetal outcomes.

Methods

Attitudes and beliefs around women’s autonomy and health professionals’ legal accountability were measured in a sample of 336 midwives and doctors from both public and private health sectors in Queensland, Australia, using a questionnaire available online and in paper format. Student’s t-test was used to compare midwives’ and doctors’ responses.

Results

Both maternity care professionals demonstrated a poor understanding of their own legal accountability, and the rights of the woman and her fetus. Midwives and doctors believed the final decision should rest with the woman; however, each also believed that the needs of the woman may be overridden for the safety of the fetus. Doctors believed themselves to be ultimately legally accountable for outcomes experienced in pregnancy and birth, despite the legal position that all health care professionals are responsible only for adverse outcomes caused by their own negligent actions. Interprofessional differences were evident, with midwives and doctors significantly differing in their responses on five of the six items.

Conclusions

Maternity care professionals inconsistently supported women’s right to autonomous decision making during pregnancy and birth. This finding is further complicated by care providers’ poor understanding of legal accountability for outcomes experienced in pregnancy and birth. The findings of this study support the need for guidelines on decision making in pregnancy and birth for maternity care professionals, and for recognition of interprofessional differences in beliefs around the rights of the woman, her fetus and health professionals in order to facilitate collaborative practice.

Keywords:
Autonomy; Decision making; Legal accountability; Maternity care; Childbirth; Maternal rights; Fetal rights; Health professionals