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Banning Companions During Childbirth Strips Women of Support

Hospitals’ COVID-19 Response Should Support Rights-Based Maternal Health Care

Pedestrians wearing masks walk by New York Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital in New York, Monday, March 16, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/John Minchillo

Update: On March 28, New York Govenor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order requiring all New York hospitals to allow women to have a partner in labor and delivery rooms. NewYork-Presbyterian and Mount Sinai hospitals stated that they would comply with the order, though Mount Sinai’s updated policy still bars any visitors from postpartum recovery rooms, which are not included in the order.

In response to the growing coronavirus pandemic, NewYork-Presbyterian and Mount Sinai health care systems in New York City earlier this week instituted policies barring a partner or companion from being present during labor and delivery and in postpartum hospital rooms. This is likely the start of many such policies, as hospitals face the crushing strain of COVID-19 but also try to stay open for routine needs like childbirth. It’s also among the first of many terrible choices hospitals may have to make as they try to manage and reduce the harms of this crisis, but it is a policy that leaves women without any support from a person they know and trust during childbirth.

I can’t help but think of my own experience giving birth last July. After several days of in-patient monitoring for severe pre-eclampsia, a serious and sometimes fatal complication, I was induced six weeks early. Although I was overcome with fear, having my partner by my side throughout the process provided the reassurance and support I needed.

According to the World Health Organization, all pregnant women, including those who are infected with COVID-19, have “the right to high quality care before, during, and after childbirth.” The WHO specifically states that a “safe and positive childbirth experience” includes being treated with dignity and respect and having a companion present during delivery. Studies have shown that having a companion present during labor can improve the health outcomes of women and the quality of care they receive as well as ensure childbirth is a safe experience for them. In the United States, a country with high maternal mortality rates, especially for Black women, this is particularly important.

NewYork-Presbyterian has stated that this policy is “a necessary step to promote the safety of our new mothers and children.” Its director of obstetrics, Dr. Dena Goffman, stressed the need to identify and isolate newborns who may have contracted the virus from their mothers to prevent outbreaks among newborns in the hospital. But this risk can be managed. Having a partner present during delivery does not have to create any more risk than having a nurse in the room, as the partner would wear a mask, gloves, and gown. In times of crisis or not, partners play a critical role, ensuring pregnant women have the support they need during childbirth.

Without a partner present, who will provide care and attention during childbirth when an already overstretched staff cannot? Who will intervene with health care staff on behalf of pregnant women, and alert staff to any complications during labor or postpartum recovery?

These are extraordinary times. But as hospitals take steps to ensure all patients, including pregnant women and newborns, and health care staff are safe from COVID-19, it’s critical that they also seek to minimize the impact on women’s rights. That means seeking the participation of pregnant women to develop alternatives that ensure the safety and well-being of all patients.

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