Birth trauma experts pull out of conference over censorship concerns

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NSW Mental Health Minister Rose Jackson has criticised the health department for asking a birth trauma expert to change her presentation at a conference, leading two psychologists to pull out.

Clinical psychologist Lucy Frankham was due to present her newly published paper on birth trauma at the NSW Health Perinatal and Infant Mental Health symposium last week, but her presentation was abruptly pulled from the schedule when she refused to remove the term “obstetric violence” from her planned talk.

Clinical psychologist Lucy Frankham.Credit: Danielle Smith

“I felt a strong sense of injustice to those women to learn that research about birth trauma could not be discussed among the very people who care for them in our health system,” Frankham said. “To actively seek to censor discussion about birth trauma and obstetric violence sends a message to women that they are not being heard or taken seriously.”

Jackson said she asked NSW Health to apologise to Frankham as soon as she became aware of the situation, but the Ballina-based psychologist declined NSW Health’s offer to present her research as planned.

“It is crucial that we have open dialogue in healthcare discussions,” Jackson said. “I’m disappointed that this situation meant Ms Frankham chose not to present.”

A NSW Health spokesman said senior staff reversed the decision as soon as they were made aware, and had “expressed sincere apologies” to Frankham.

“Ms Frankham has been assured NSW Health is open to hearing all perspectives relating to birth and perinatal health,” the spokesman said.

Another psychologist who was due to present but did not want to be named said they had also received an email to say health professionals could not be mentioned in any discussion of birth trauma, nor could they use the term obstetric violence.

When they learned Frankham had been removed from the schedule, the psychologist pulled out of the conference, saying they “could not support the silencing of scientific findings”.

Obstetric violence is recognised by the United Nations as a form of gender-based violence perpetrated by healthcare providers against a parent before, during or after pregnancy.

It includes actions such as denying treatment, disregarding pain, administering medication or procedures without fully informed consent, or unnecessarily invasive procedures.

But the term is controversial among some Australian health professionals, who say it is unfair to obstetricians and other health workers who care for women during childbirth.

In its submission to the ongoing NSW senate inquiry into birth trauma, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) said the term implies “that the obstetrician ‘intended’ the harm – which is unfair and vastly incorrect”.

Emma Hurst, the Animal Justice Party MLC who is chairing the senate inquiry, said it was “utterly inappropriate” that researchers had been asked to censor themselves at a time when efforts were being made to reduce stigma around birth trauma.

“This shouldn’t be about healthcare workers versus birthing women, it is about honest conversations about what is happening to cause avoidable trauma,” she said. “We desperately need NSW Health to be part of the conversation so we can find solutions.”

The inquiry has received 4000 submissions since it was announced in July.

The next hearing is scheduled to take place in December in Wagga Wagga, where dozens of women recently complained to the Health Care Complaints Commission about the maternity care they received while in hospital.

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