Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The NFWI and Analgesics

International Day of the Midwife is marked today (5 May). This year’s theme is ‘Midwives for a Better Tomorrow,’ yet a look back into the WI archives reveals that WI members have long known that midwifery professionals are at the heart of quality care for women and families.

The NFWI has been campaigning on maternal health issues and improvements in health care from as early as 1925. In 1938 members’ efforts turned to addressing pain relief in labour, when a resolution urging “the new methods of analgesia [to be] made available for all countrywomen in childbirth” was passed.

Midwives, who usually attended poorer, rural women, were often not trained in administering the drugs. Most women could not afford a private obstetrician or were understandably afraid to use them. Pain relief during labour was the preserve of the wealthy, the urban, and the educated - a fact that the WI found unacceptable.

The resolution brought nationwide attention to the issue and was discussed in Parliament, with Fulham MP, Dr. Edith Summerskill proposing an inquiry to investigate how to better train midwives in providing the drugs.

The decades that followed saw the NFWI and its allies successfully build both public and professional understanding about analgesia. Following WWII, the NFWI partnered with the National Birthday Trust Fund and began campaigning for all midwives to be given training in providing analgesics. That campaign was successful and, as of January 1st 1948, new midwifery students began to undergo analgesics training.

After the Analgesia in Childbirth Bill (1949) – backed by the NFWI in an attempt to enshrine into law the right for women to pain-relief during childbirth – failed to pass, the NFWI kept up the momentum with a survey of members on the use of air and gas during labour to find out how to best serve them and empower women to speak up and make choices during childbirth.

With the results revealing that the reasons women did not opt for analgesics were because “some did not find analgesia effective”, some were “ignorant” of the benefits, and others “apprehensive” the NFWI set out to spread the word that if administered properly analgesics were safe and effective. WIs wrote articles, had talks, and hosted tents at County Fairs where they provided practical demonstrations on how to administer and receive the drugs, which proved extremely popular. A special section in the WI tent at the Herefordshire county show in the early 1950s was dedicated to gas and air, with a country midwife on duty demonstrating how the sets worked.  In February 1953 Home and Country magazine reported “This excellent idea brought forward gas and air apparatus to the notice of many people who would not have otherwise heard of it.” Other WIs were encouraged to help midwives have a gas and air set on view in Infant Welfare Centres for mothers to see them, or even to train up local women to help midwives use the machines.

Midwife administering analgesia

The WI campaign for analgesia is just one example of how the WI has worked to support midwives and ensure women are empowered in their healthcare decisions. From the campaign for more midwives (2012), to decrease maternal mortality (1925), for free family planning (1972), and screenings for breast cancer (1975), the WI has always sought to improve women’s health and educate members so they can make informed decisions for themselves and their families. 

To celebrate both our centenary and the International Day of the Midwife (5 May), we have released our report on the maternity experiences of WI members over the last 50 years. Watch some highlights from the report here:

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