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If the coalition is committed to families, why are maternity services being cut?

The strain of austerity is beginning to show on maternal care provision.

A young boy is weighed after being born in an NHS maternity unit in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images

Recent news that the health of pregnant women and new mothers is being negatively impacted as a result of the coalition’s budget cuts strikes an odd note:  like them or loathe them, if there’s one thing you can rely on Conservatives for, it’s proclaiming their allegiance to the family. When the brutality of the cuts began to show in areas like refugee services or young people from non-privileged backgrounds no longer applying to university, there was at least the grim ring of consistency – have the Tories ever credibly claimed to care about such constituencies? Similarly, when feminist groups like the Fawcett Society demonstrated that women were facing a double-burden of the recession and government cuts in the workplace, one didn’t need to stretch one’s imagination too far to place this in the broader picture of a Conservative Party who seems to prefer women both at home and "in their place". “Families” though, were safe in the arms of the Conservatives’ paternal concern. Never mind that the whole gamut of austerity measures, from the game-changing overhaul of higher education to the cutting up of the NHS, daily and tangibly corrode the wellbeing and future prospects of parents, children, communities – families, in short, of one kind or another.  Still the amorphous ideal of the "traditional" family unit was one the governing party claims to hold close to its heart.

It’s striking, then, that the latest area in which the government’s cuts are being felt is in maternal care. Framing its concern largely in terms of children, the Daily Mail (that other "family" cheerleader) recently reported that breastfeeding rates have been directly hit by the cuts to healthcare services, citing research by health data analysts SSentif that post-natal women living in areas where cuts to maternity services have come into effect are more likely to stop breastfeeding in the first eight weeks, due to lack of available support from midwives and healthcare visitors. Given the wealth of scientific evidence on the life-long benefits, for children, of being breastfed, the logic follows that there may likely be a long-term negative impact on a future generation’s health.

The blog FalseEconomy has detailed further reasons for, and consequences of, the increased strain on maternal care provision, including demographic shifts towards later pregnancies as a reason for an increase in "complex pregnancies" taking more time for midwives, and the "knock on" effect of cuts in other areas such as violence against women provisions and services to the homeless. It cites the Royal College of Midwives’ State of Maternity Services report to lend credence to the claim that the government cuts have combined with demographic changes to stretch maternity services beyond their capacity. The Valuing Maternity campaign by Maternity Action is calling for greater commitment from the government to ensure this vital aspect of public health is addressed.

Aside from the inherent concern of the reduction in maternal care, and the worrying evidence suggesting its impact on a decline in breastfeeding, the example of the over-stretching of reduced maternal services is also a chilling reminder that no reduction of a public service happens in a vacuum. Women’s experiences of the recession are a prime example of the knock-on effect of one area of government policy to another, and how the recession and the cuts introduced under the guise of "austerity" have combined to corner women into a position of less work, less pay, fewer benefits and fewer rights. (Meanwhile urgent calls to address issues such as gender-inequities in public life and pre-recession concerns about the continuing pay gap are dismissed as a luxury "in these difficult times". As Susan Faludi outlined so eloquently in The Terror Dream’s analysis of the Bush-Blair years, that women’s concerns were dismissed along the lines of “not now dear, there’s a war on”, in the post-financial crisis era this is modified: not "now dear, it’s the austerity – but we’re all in this together"). 

Not only was this the first feminised recession in terms of the sectors hit hardest by job losses, but measures introduced under the guise of "austerity" doubly-targeted women, as women were both a larger proportion of public sector workers with jobs on the line, and some of the main users of state-provided services. (To add a further grim footnote: just as women needed financial independence the most, research from IPPR suggests that banks, too, turned on women, arbitrarily denying mortgages and other loans to female customers, using the new excuse of "new stricter regulations").

Eventually, as the new evidence on maternal health provision in the UK indicates, the knock-on effect manifests even in an area the Conservatives claim as their own: protecting the "family" and women as child-bearers. The painful cycle being played out in dominoes as one service after another is gutted by the cuts reveals the inherent flaw even in ideologically-driven cuts – while wealth may not trickle-down, corrosion of communities and services does trickle up, and into areas the Tories claim are their priority.

It also reveals what a sham it is to say you care about "families" when your policies show little if any concern for women.

Follow Heather McRobie on Twitter as @heathermcrobie.