When Mrs Pankhurst and her courageous group of suffragettes made their call for women’s voting rights, they had to stand up and speak up, regardless of the prevailing public opinion or apathy or outright opposition within society towards their campaign. Likewise, today there are not very many women who are consumers of maternity services, or midwives or doctors for that matter, who are prepared to challenge the status quo and seriously demand women’s maternity rights.

The task of advocating for women’s access to appropriate models of basic maternity care, ‘effective care in childbirth’, is enormous, and is in the hands of the few who understand. This is, essentially, the reason for the existence of the Maternity Coalition. The rampant encroachment of unhelpful technology and interruption into the birthing process is robbing women of their own power in birthing, and replacing perinatal bonding and attachment experiences with bright lights, dangerous drugs, surgical procedures, and machines that go ‘ping’. The anti-natural birth movement is gathering momentum, with little effective opposition.

As time passes the broad policy direction of the major service providers in maternity care is centralisation of birthing services under the roof of major obstetric hospitals. This is occurring or likely to occur in metropolitan and rural centres, such as Camden (NSW), Manumn and Mclaren Vale (SA), Williamstown, Moorabbin, Warracknabeal, Seymour (Vic), Woodside, Bentley, and Kalamunda in WA (following the Cohen Report), and Beaudesert (Qld).

Despite various state government policies supporting women’s choice and midwifery options of care, the fact is that only small numbers of women are able to access anything like a midwifery option. We are encouraged by the progress in reforming NSW legislation in the passing of the Nurses and Midwives Act, and the anticipated changes to Ryde and Manly hospital maternity units as midwifery led options of care. It is hoped that other States and Territories will follow suit in regard to legislative reform and improvements to services without delay.

In a recent press release from the Victorian Health Minister, the fact that Caesarean births are now at an all time high of 27% was merely mentioned without comment. Attention was drawn to the fact that 97% of that state’s babies “born in the two-year period were delivered in hospitals”. This statistic, we are told, “underlines the important role our specialist health care facilities play in meeting the needs of Victorian women at a very special time in their lives.” implying that only 3% of women chose the options of birth centre or home. Not so! This figure merely means that hospitals have a monopoly of funding for birth and women have been forced to give birth in hospital. Women have so little choice in the matter that its quite amazing that any planned homebirths take place!

In her Birth editorial, Diony Young asserts “the return to normal childbirth calls for a revolution indeed.” (Birth 30:3 September 2003 pp149-152). Young draws attention to the decline in vaginal birth rates in many countries, accompanied by activism by various anti-vaginal birth groups with fairly obvious vested interests. Medical conferences, for example, which receive sponsorship, nice meals, and promotional give-aways from the makers of instruments and drugs and surgical supplies, are unlikely to promote means of reducing the practitioner’s reliance on such commodities.

The essential and timeless work of birthing and nurturing babies is work that cannot be bottled or patented or even made into text books. Birthing is from within. Nurturing and the formation of strong maternal infant bonds is best learnt instinctively, also from within.

The challenge today to the women of Australia is to reclaim birth as a basic and intimate life experience while it’s still possible. Together we must campaign to achieve our rights, and those of our daughters, nieces, and friends in childbirth.