'Safest route for me': Why some women are choosing to have unassisted births

ITV News Correspondent Rebecca Barry reports on why some women are giving birth without any medical support.

A woman has told ITV News how the experience of finding a “dead foetus” in a hospital toilet contributed to her decision to decline all NHS maternity care and give birth at home without any medical assistance.

Lucy Stern, 39, from Chester decided to have a so-called “freebirth” when she had her son Louis in May this year.

She gave birth at home in her living room with just her husband and four-year-old daughter present.

She said she felt rejecting NHS maternity care was safer than accepting it because she’d experienced a “lack of funding, a lack of basic training, common sense and empathy".

After repeated miscarriages in 2021 she had one particularly traumatic experience at the Countess of Chester Hospital.

“When I went to the loo, I walked in and sitting over the bowl in a cardboard container was a 14-week-old dead foetus, lying in the toilet, with no respect," she said.

“It left me thinking there is no way in hell I’ll be setting foot over that hospital’s steps unless there is a critical emergency.”

She described her decision to have her baby at home, without a midwife or doctor present, as "joyful" and "empowering".

She added: “My daughter had woken up, come down the stairs, it was 7.05 in the morning, and she walked round and she said 'mummy what’s going on?' and I said 'your baby brother’s here come and have a look' and his head was out and body followed.

"Then my daughter got into the pool with me. It was just magical, absolutely magical and I felt absolutely elated.”

Lucy said a 'lack of funding, a lack of basic training, common sense and empathy' influenced her decision to have an unassisted home birth.

She said she felt an unassisted birth was the “safest route” for her and her baby.

“I’m not a reckless a person, a maverick, a rule breaker, I’m a teacher’s pet. I’ve always done things by the book, and for somebody like that, to make a decision like this - there has to be a good reason for it," she said.

"And that was my total distrust in the NHS and maternity services and the state of them in the UK at the moment.

“Nobody wants not to trust their local NHS Trust to help them through a challenging time in their life, but if you get to a point where you physically cannot trust your local hospital to safely carry you through pregnancy and birth and postnatal - then sometimes you have no other option but to explore different solutions.”

A spokesperson for the Countess of Chester Hospital NHS Foundation Trust said: “The dignity of patients receiving care at the Trust is absolutely vital and we want to reaffirm that we have robust processes in place that are considered at every stage of their care that ensure clinical ethics are maintained at all times."

'It was just magical, absolutely magical'.

Lucy complained to the Countess of Chester Hospital in September 2021, but she only received their response a year later, after ITV News contacted the trust.

“We want to apologise sincerely to the patient for failing to communicate with them clearly," a spokesperson said. "While we have processes in place to ensure we communicate promptly and clearly with patients, in this case the Trust’s response to the patient’s complaint was not sent in the timeframe that it should have been.

"We understand how distressing this will have been to the patient and we will be reviewing this incident to ensure we communicate in a timely and compassionate way with patients in the future."

There are no official statistics on the number of freebirths in the UK, but one birth charity has told ITV News it’s seen online enquiries about unassisted births almost double in the last year.

Samantha Gadsden, from South Wales, is a doula - someone who supports women through pregnancy and birth.

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She said she became so inundated by enquiries about unassisted birth that she set up a online training course.

In the last two years more than a thousand people have signed up. She thinks the shortage of midwives and the suspension of home birth services in some areas has contributed to the increase in interest.

She said: “Some women are preparing to freebirth just in case a midwife doesn’t make it.

“Freebirth should be an active choice and not something that happens because you’re scared of hospital or scared that’s there’s no staff.”

It is legal to decline maternity services and guidance from the Royal College of Midwives states: “It is not appropriate for healthcare professionals to refer a woman to social services with concerns about the unborn baby, solely on the basis that she has declined medical support.”

Samantha believes women are 'not being listened to in their desire to home birth'.

But ITV News has found that some women are being referred to social services.

Angela Howard, from Bournemouth, wanted an unassisted birth for her baby girl, due in November, having had a traumatic first birth. But when she declined a 16 week scan she was contacted by her local authority’s safeguarding team.

“I got a phone call from social services a few days later saying that I was putting my unborn baby at risk and I have to comply with the hospital and have scans and basically do what I’m told," she said.

After six years of trying to conceive and having spent thousands of pounds of IVF, she said it was an enormously distressing experience.

"As much as I hate to admit it, I was so distressed, I was so upset at the thought that kept repeating in my head over and over again of my baby being taken away, that I seriously considered getting an abortion," she added.

Angela said women 'deserve a little bit of care and empathy instead of scare tactics and coercion'.

"That's how absolutely devastated and upset I was at the thought of these people, who knew nothing of what we'd been through to become pregnant, just callously taking the baby away over something as minor as a scan.

“We just deserve a little bit of care and empathy instead of scare tactics and coercion.”

Angela has now hired a private midwife.

Although the number of unassisted births in the UK is not known, some have estimated there could be hundreds each year, Rebecca Barry explains.

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council told ITV News: “Whilst we do not comment on individual cases, parents who choose not to engage with particular healthcare services are well within their rights to do so.

"However, it is a local authority’s responsibility to follow up any referrals from other agencies to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all children and unborn babies.

"This can mean that parents are contacted by us so that we can discuss any concerns raised, offer help and support where necessary, and address any safeguarding concerns.”

The body which sets standards for obstetricians in the UK insists that having medical professionals on hand for a birth is vital.

Dr Pat O'Brien, Vice President of The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said : "I know there are times when complications can occur, even when mother and baby are perfectly healthy at the start of labour.

"Some babies get distressed right at the end of labour and are born not breathing and will need urgent help, which for a trained midwife is a very easy thing to do, but for a woman at home who has just given birth and maybe bleeding heavily it's impossible to do.

"I would recommend having professionals there when you're giving birth at home so that if something happens they can deal with it and you and your baby will be healthy."

An NHS England spokesperson said: “Using medical and midwifery care is the safest option for women and babies and we strongly urge everyone to come forward and use the NHS services available to them - having a qualified midwife or skilled professional present means they can quickly respond to any complications.”

Where to get support if you, your partner or someone you know has had a miscarriage