April 21, 2022 - 7:45am

The deaths of pregnant women from Covid-19 were “preventable” according to a leading scientist. Professor Marian Knight, who lead investigations into at least 40 maternal Covid deaths, told Newsnight on Tuesday that pregnant women had been an “afterthought” during the pandemic. Professor Knight said that the benefits of the vaccine were not properly communicated to them.

This is not the first time in recent weeks the NHS has been found to be failing pregnant women — particularly in tailoring and explaining treatment to them. Knight’s comments follow the publication of the Ockenden report last month, looking into Obstetric services at the Shrewsbury and Telford NHS trust. The report examined nearly 1600 clinical incidents spanning the years between 2000-2019. The findings were damning, describing a paternalistic system that communicated poorly, diminished women’s concerns, and denied women choice and agency.

Women found they had natural birth pushed on them. They were not fully informed of the risks. Regardless of their wishes or the clinical situation, they were encouraged to avoid and in some cases, were even denied, caesarean sections. This practice lead to the avoidable deaths of almost 200 babies and nine mothers, with many more left traumatised, or brain damaged.

The report found that there was also a culture of blaming mothers for poor outcomes, with some women even being faulted for their own deaths. Not only that, but staff were advised not to speak out. For nearly two decades these issues were not challenged by the trust.

Then another scandal involving the NHS and pregnant women emerged. A Sunday Times investigation found that women are also continuing to be prescribed  a drug known to cause birth defects. Pregnant women are taking Sodium Valproate, with no warnings about the risks associated with it. Valproate, which is used in the treatment of epilepsy and some mood disorders has been known to cause birth defects since at least the early 1990s.

Despite this, women report being given the drug in plain packets, with no patient safety leaflets, and with no communication from their doctors about the risks of taking it in pregnancy. A government commissioned report, published in July 2020, found that the NHS had been “disjointed, siloed, unresponsive and defensive” when it came to the scandal. But it seems the practice continued regardless.

It has long been known misogyny is a major issue within the NHS. Only last year, a health minister admitted that sexism was rife in the health service, and that “women are not listened to”. The situation is often even worse when it comes to obstetric care — women can find themselves reduced to incubators, with their own wishes being viewed as an afterthought, or an inconvenience. By failing, yet again, to adequately communicate with pregnant women, and to inform them of the risks and benefits associated with treatment, the medical profession has callously stripped them of their autonomy, and has put lives at risk as a result.

It seems doubtful that these scandals will be the last when it comes to the NHS’s blemished history regarding women. What is more it remains defensive, with the Ockenden review team made to feel “fearful” for speaking out, and it is hard to see how any true change can occur when reform is so difficult. How many more scandals must the NHS endure before it accepts it needs to change the way it treats, and, fundamentally, thinks about women?

Amy Jones is an anonymous doctor who has a background in Philosophy & Bioethics.