To what extent are women free to choose where to give birth? How discourses of risk, blame and responsibility influence birth place decisions
Over the past 50 years, two things have changed for women giving birth in high-income nations; birth has become much safer, and now takes place in hospital rather than at home. The extent to which these phenomena are related is a source of ongoing debate, but concern about high intervention rates in hospitals, and financial pressures on health care systems, have led governments, clinicians and groups representing women to support a return to birth in ‘alternative’ settings such as midwife-led birth centres or at home, particularly for well women with healthy pregnancies. Despite this, most women still plan to give birth in high-technology hospital labour wards. In this article, we draw on a longitudinal narrative study of pregnant women at three maternity services in England between October 2009 and November 2010. Our findings indicate that for many women, hospital birth with access to medical care remained the default option. When women planned hospital birth, they often conceptualised birth as medically risky, and did not raise concerns about overuse of birth interventions; instead, these were considered an essential form of rescue from the uncertainties of birth. Those who planned birth in alternative settings also emphasised their intention, and obligation, to seek medical care if necessary. Using sociocultural theories of risk to focus our analysis, we argue that planning place of birth is mediated by cultural and historical associations between birth and safety, and further influenced by prominent contemporary narratives of risk, blame and the responsibility. We conclude that even with high-level support for ‘alternative’ settings for birth, these discourses constrain women’s decisions, and effectively limit opportunities for planning birth in settings other than hospital labour wards. Our contention is that a combination of cultural and social factors helps explain the continued high uptake of hospital obstetric unit birth, and that for this to change, birth in alternative settings would need to be positioned as a culturally normative and acceptable practice.