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Young mum pioneers ACT’s first freestanding birth centre 

Abbie McMillan-Maher has spearheaded the campaign to establish a free-standing birth centre in the ACT

Canberra is set to have its first freestanding birth centre, thanks to the benevolent efforts of a young Canberra mum-of-three.

Late last year, Abbie McMillan-Maher spearheaded the petition to establish a government-funded birth centre that would provide “a home-like environment allowing well Canberran women to give birth safely and supported by known midwives”. With over 500 signatures, Abbie’s petition was successfully tabled by Greens MLA Jo Clay in the ACT Legislative Assembly in February.

The bill for the birth centre is currently undergoing a feasibility study, however the ACT government has proposed to build the new birth centre in Canberra’s northside. The design will receive input from midwives, and is set to be released in August 2024.

I sat down with Abbie to unpack her motivations behind leading the campaign, and find out why a freestanding birth centre is so important for Canberra women.

Outside of the ACT Legislative Assembly
Q: What was it about your own experience that caused you to initiate the petition for a freestanding birth centre?

A: For me, I had three babies, all in the birth centre at the Canberra Hospital – all drug-free, intervention free, spontaneous labours. All three were phenomenal. But the women in my mother’s group, and other women that I’d spoken to, had not had as great experiences.

I had also a lot of friends who were told by their obstetricians that they needed an induction, because their babies were “so big”. But evidence shows that it’s not good to induce the baby before [39] weeks, and that the measurements [of the baby] aren’t accurate via ultrasound.

That’s not to say intervention is bad – when they’re needed, interventions are amazing, and they save lives. But our intervention rate is significantly higher than what is necessary, and there are higher rates of complication coming out of that operation.

If you have an induction, and your body’s not ready to have an induction, it’s like a cascade of intervention… And then people have bad [experiences of] birth, they have birth trauma, and then that’s the story they carry with them.

So, it was important for me because here I was, I had these three amazing births, [and] I wanted other women to have the same experiences that I was able to. I didn’t want them to think that it was awful, and have to carry that shame and that trauma.

Abbie’s birth album
Q: We obviously already have two birth centres within our local hospitals – why is it important for there to be a free-standing birth centre, separate to the hospitals?

A: There are a few reasons why the add-on would be really important. Firstly, during COVID, the birth centre at the Canberra hospital was converted to a ward because it was isolated, so women were losing their birth centre rooms. That isn’t to say that finding solutions to COVID care isn’t important – but at least if we have a free-standing birth centre, then that’s not going to be a threat.

The second reason is that, when you go into [the existing birth centres], you go through the main hospital doors and you’re hit with the bright lights, you’re hit with the ‘clinical aesthetic’… You’re still going into the hospital. You’re still going in to the sound of buzzers going off, and everything that the hospital is.

It’s [about] removing the clinical environment of the hospital. Having a midwife that you know, in a space that you trust, that feels like a home-like environment – that’s what a birth centre is meant to be. It’s meant to be a home-like space, as opposed to a clinical hospital ward. You will have a better time.

And then, of course, if we add [the birth centre] on its own, there’s just more places for women to go to get birth centre care.

Abbie in the birth centre suite
Q: What’s your vision, then, for the new birth centre?

A: Well, it will be potentially built at the University of Canberra, which means we could have student involvement. Then the next generation of midwives will be influenced by that model of care.

Then, I guess the rooms are the other really important thing. Just nice big rooms, really comfortable and inviting, with somewhere that your partner or support person can stay with you too. Something’s that’s ‘hygienically homely’.

Q: Do you have any idea on how long this will be sitting with Parliament?

A: They’re doing a feasibility study now to look at how much it’s going to cost. Technically they could come back and say it’s not feasible, but [the bill] has passed the ACT Legislative Assembly, and they’ve said that they agree to fund it. I’m sure it’s probably another couple of years away.

Original photos by Caitlin Young