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By Emma-Louise Boynton
regnant women in the UK are now being urged to get their COVID-19 jab as soon as possible following a five-fold increase in the number of expectant mothers being admitted to hospital with the virus.
“Getting the vaccine is the best way to keep you and your baby safe,” said Gill Walton, Chief Executive of the Royal College of Midwives. “We are seeing increasing numbers of pregnant women being admitted to hospital with serious illness, almost all of whom are unvaccinated. So it’s so important for pregnant women to take up the vaccine.”
According to new research, pregnant women are at greater risk of being adversely affected by the new Delta variant, and those who catch the virus are more likely to have a preterm birth, their babies more likely to be admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Research has also shown that one in ten pregnant women admitted to hospital with Covid symptoms need treatment in intensive care.
Driving this issue has been a comparatively low vaccine uptake amongst pregnant women. Of those admitted to hospital with COVID-19 in late July, 95% were unvaccinated. More worrying still, according to a recent poll by campaign group Pregnant The Screwed, 41% of pregnant women haven’t had a single dose of the vaccine, while just 21% have received two doses.
But vaccine hesitancy amongst expectant mothers should come as little surprise. Initial guidance issued by Britain’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) in December 2020 suggested the jab was unsafe for pregnant and breastfeeding women. It wasn’t until a few months ago that this guidance was reversed. Yet despite mounting international evidence as to the specific risks associated with getting COVID-19 while pregnant, pregnant women remain the only vulnerable adult group in Britain not prioritised for the vaccine.
MP for Walthomstow, Stella Creasy, who is pregnant with her second child, has for months been campaigning for the government to better protect expectant mothers during the pandemic. Following the recent change in vaccine guidance she wrote on Twitter: “Stop blaming pregnant women for not getting the vaccine. Many of us fought for the Government to make pregnancy a priority for vaccination but the ministers and JCVI didn't even look at this issue until late May. Even then no action was agreed as the risk was not big enough....and now…”
In the U.S. and other countries pregnant women have been offered the jab since December 2020.
“Pregnant women remain the only vulnerable adult group not prioritised for the vaccine.”
Pregnant Women: An Afterthought
This is not the first time that the needs of pregnant women have seemed more of an afterthought than a priority when it comes to COVID-policymaking. Obviously with a new vaccine authorities must be wary of recommending its use across the board, particularly where it may affect the unborn. But from the outset of the pandemic, expectant mothers have borne the brunt of stringent COVID-19 restrictions in maternity services, which Birthrights, the UK-based charity for protecting human rights in childbirth, described as “inconsistent, disproportionate and, at worst, inhumane.”
At the height of the pandemic, partners were prevented from attending antenatal scans, prohibited from attending hospital for the birth of their child until “established labour”, and banned from staying after the birth. For much of last year, heartbreaking stories of women having to learn they’d had a miscarriage alone abounded. Others, of women having to get inductions and go into pre-C section preparations solo.
The toll this has taken on women’s mental health is patent. According to several new studies there has been a three- to five-fold increase in perinatal depression and anxiety during the pandemic. Research from Pregnant Then Screwed shows that some 75% of pregnant women feel anxious about their safety as restrictions are lifted.
At this critical time when women in this country need us to be fighting for their rights, Parliament isn't even saying we matter in its own house.
At The Root Of The Problem Is Parliament
The way in which the needs of pregnant women have been overlooked during the pandemic is symptomatic of a deeper-rooted problem regarding how lawmakers treat expectant mothers generally.
Parliament should not only be ensuring the needs of pregnant women are properly listened to and considered during policy-making processes, particularly when these policies affect this group directly. It should also be leading by example and setting a high bar when it comes to maternity care policies.
It is doing neither.
Earlier this year, the archaisms of a parliamentary system set up by - and evidently for - men was laid bare when legislation had to be rushed through the Commons to allow Attorney General, Suella Braverman, to take six months’ maternity leave following the birth of her second child. Under previous legislation, Ms Braverman would have had to resign from her role had she wanted to take time off.
However, even though the new law (for the first time) formalises ministerial maternity leave and also permits cabinet ministers to receive six months’ full pay, it does not extend to backbench MPs. While this latter group are entitled to full maternity-leave pay, their constituency duties are not fully covered in their absence. In effect, constituents must lose out if a new parent decides to take time off to care for a new child.
Speaking on The Stack’s She Stands panel last month, Stella Creasy MP, explained: “When my baby is born, I want to be able to spend some time with it. I don't want to have to choose between making sure my constituents continue to get their representation and my baby.
“Parliament sometimes treats women like we're a problem, and having babies as a problem, rather than a fact of life. So they haven't got a policy on this.”
Do Pregnant MPs Not Matter?
During her first pregnancy, in 2019, Creasy won a hard-fought bureaucratic battle with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa, the parliamentary agency responsible for MPs’ expenses, including staff costs) for the right to appoint Parliament’s first maternity locum to cover her constituency work. Her temporary replacement, Kizzy Gardiner, covered a broad spate of duties, from running weekly surgeries to overseeing Creasy’s national political campaigns on issues such as domestic violence. She could not sit in the House of Commons or vote.
But fast forward to 2021 and Creasy has been denied the right to appoint another locum MP for her second maternity leave.
"Constitutionally, no-one can take on the full roles and responsibilities of a Member of Parliament, who is an office holder elected by the general public," Ipsa said of her request.
Creasy promptly threatened to sue Parliament in response.
The problem, she explained to The Stack, is that in simply giving her money to hire a new member of staff (Ipsa provides £60,000 pro rata of maternity leave cover) rather than the ability to hire a like-for-like replacement, the regulatory body is just giving her a bigger team to manage while she’s away and ensuring she still has to work if she doesn’t want to let her constituents down.
“I have NO maternity cover provided from Parliament,” she recently tweeted. “So even though I am weeks from giving birth and am ill, I have no choice but to still keep working…just a lot slower than usual, Walthamstow…”
Creasy has developed gestational diabetes during her second pregnancy.
For Your Interests To Be Reflected, You Have To Be Represented
“If we're not following the laws and regulations that we ask employers to uphold, it doesn't send a great message,” she told The Stack. “And to have a two-tier system where only like-for-like cover is available if you're senior enough, i.e. if you’re Attorney General, Suella Braverman, is discrimination.
“It sends a really bad message about why maternity and pregnancy rights matter.
“We know that thoasands of women have experienced maternity discrimination during the pandemic. So at this critical time when women in this country need us to be fighting for their rights, Parliament isn't even saying we matter in its own house.”
Not only does this set a bad example to the rest of society, it also acts as a deterrent to women entering politics, as Creasy points out.
But it is integral that Parliament reflects the people it claims to represent properly, otherwise it’s easy to see how the needs and interests of those not at the decision-making table become an incidental afterthought. Pregnant women deserve better than this.
“I know so many brilliant women who would make brilliant MPs,” Creasy concluded. “But it's not rocket science why there aren't that many of us of childbearing age in politics, when we make it so impossible for people to have families and be able to be good representatives.”
“I don't think that should be a trade-off. I think you can do both. But you need a parliament that's in the 21st century, not the 18th.”
Parliament must improve its maternity care policies internally in order to improve the treatment of expectant mothers outside its own house.
By Emma-Louise Boynton
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