That’s not intended to be a trick question, though I’ll admit it is a bit of a leading one in the context of this post because, although there are several possible answers to this, which are all more than worthy of debate, I am really only wanting to write about one today: the kind of so-called consent that is sought when someone is halfway through performing a vaginal examination which a woman has consented to and, out of the blue and before removing their fingers, asks the woman if she would like to have another procedure performed at the same time; usually the breaking of her waters or (in countries where intervention in pregnancy is even greater than average and vaginal examination is carried out during pregnancy) a stretch and sweep.
I was horrified to receive several emails about this when I asked for feedback on what kinds of things readers of this blog would like me to write about. Because, try as I might, I can’t see how that is justifiable. It bothers me on so many levels, and I can’t find a single angle to look at it from which doesn’t lead to my concluding that it flies in the face of the notion of informed decision-making.
Firstly, both of the procedures given as examples above (ARM and stretch and sweep) might sound innocuous, but they are means of attempting to induce and/or augment (speed up) labour. Some women might well decide they want to have them, after they have had a chance to think about them and weigh up the risks and benefits, but they are interventions and women thus deserve to have that time to think about them, seek more information, consider their options and discuss them with loved ones. None of which is possible or practical while one is being examined in that way. Most of which might not even be possible or practical for some women while they are in the company of a waiting professional, though I acknowledge that this depends a lot on the relationship between the woman and her attendants and that there are times when this might be unavoidable.
Generally, though, neither of these interventions is carried out as an emergency procedure or in a situation in which speedy decision-making is necessitated. Many – perhaps most – women find vaginal examinations uncomfortable, embarrassing and/or painful. For some women, they are physically and/or psychologically excruciating. Women will not always tell their attendants if that is the case, though; in some cases because they do not know the attendant well enough to trust them, or because the only possible response for them is dissociation. Either way, they want each one to be over as soon as possible. In some cases, a woman might agree to anything in order to get the examination to stop.
That is not informed decision-making.
I don’t think that practitioners who do this are necessarily setting out to coerce or harm women. I can see how, from their perspective, they might genuinely think that it’s kinder to save women from having an additional examination, or they might not have thought about the ramifications of this.
Please, if you attend births and have ever done this, think about what it does to the women you care for.
I am concerned from the emails I received – which are not, by the way, limited to particular types of professionals or particular countries – that this is something which needs to be said. I cannot see how this is an appropriate time during which to discuss whether or not a woman wants to have an intervention which may have significant implications for her and her baby’s experience, and I certainly do not think that it is a kind or ethical context in which to ask someone to make a decision.
If you are a woman, and if this happens to you, you are completely within your rights to tell the attendant to finish examining you before discussing any further decisions. You can say no or stop at any time.
A friend of mine who just called while I was writing this, asked what I was doing with my morning and thus received a full discussion of the issue(!) wondered if it might also be good to suggest to women that they are very clear with the attendant before they consent to a vaginal examination that they are not consenting to any related intervention and that they do not want to discuss further interventions during the examination.
That isn’t a bad idea at all. But women should not have to be proactive in this way. Surely, given the enormity of the interventions and the invasive nature of some of the examinations carried out in maternity care, the emphasis should be on attendants to initiate such discussions only at appropriate times?