Women in France are being forced to wear masks during childbirth, with doctors given the power to refuse to treat anyone who chooses not to wear one.
French mothers have expressed their outrage at the mask requirement, pointing out that someone exercising in a fitness centre in the country is exempt from wearing one, but pregnant women must wear one during childbirth – a practice which is not followed in the UK or the US.
Critics, including medics and campaigners, argued that women are finding themselves in unnecessary distress, sometimes leading to them becoming too weak to push or having emergency C-sections.
Instead, they suggest birthing teams should wear respirator masks and higher grade PPE instead.
Mothers who have recently given birth under the new conditions have spoken out about their experiences.
Maud, 30, gave birth at Nanterre, a commune in the Hauts-de-Seine department, in the western suburbs of Paris, at the end of April.
The management controller, who was unaware of the rules before the birth, was made to wear the same mask for 12 hours between 6pm and 6am and she described her experience at the hospital as ‘blackmail’.
She said it was made clear to her that if she did not wear a mask she would have to give birth on her own because the doctors could choose not to treat her, and the hospital was understaffed and could not provide a replacement team.
The mother, who declined to give her surname, said: ‘As soon as I pushed the first time I realised that it was going to be complicated and my instinct was to take off the mask to breathe.’
She said she was told: ‘You have to keep your mask on, it’s protocol.’
In the throes of childbirth, she agreed to put her mask back on and pushed again but quickly realised that it was going to be complicated because she was ‘breathing my own hot air’.
She said that she tried again, but said: ‘I had the feeling that I was suffocating, I was very hot, I was sweating profusely under my mask, I wasn’t managing it.
‘I remember one point my partner took the mask off me because he could see that I was in distress, but he was told off for doing so.
‘In the end the doctor had to use forceps and my son was born with amniotic fluid in his lungs, a bump on his head from the forceps and he had to be transferred to the neonatal service in another hospital because the hospital I was in did not have adequate facilities.’
Maud said: ‘This was very traumatic for my partner and me. Before giving birth, we are taught to manage our breathing and so to be in this situation was very traumatic.’
Maud also said that the aftermath of the birth was difficult because her husband was not allowed to see her and her son was in another hospital. She said: ‘I was all alone in my room.’
While there has been a great deal of support shown to her plight and to that of other women, she said that some other women have also been critical, labelling her and other women who have been through similar ordeals as weak.
She said: ‘Women need to be more understanding of one another. The suffering and the trauma is real. Today, I don’t know if I would be psychologically capable to have a second child given what I have been through.’
Fanny Ragot, 25, went to a private clinic for her birth and was told upon arrival that she would have to wear a mask for the whole stay – something which was ‘non-negotiable’.
She gave birth on April 8 at the Clinique des Franciscaines, which is part of the Private Hospital De Versailles – Ramsay Sante, a private facility in Versailles, on the outskirts of the French capital Paris in the Yvelines department.
The mother, who has been unemployed since the end of August but previously worked in logistics for Renault, spent five days in hospital and had to wear the same mask throughout the entire ordeal.
She said: ‘It was very, very hard to breathe. I threw up a number of times.
‘I couldn’t catch my breath with the mask on and in the end it was decided that I had to have an emergency C-section.
‘It must have been 98.6F (37C) in there. But when I tried to take my mask off, I was told off. They said that I would be spreading coronavirus everywhere.’
Fanny said medical personnel had all been wearing face masks but that they were normal surgical masks and not respirator ones.
Echoing the feelings of other mothers across the country, Fanny said she could not understand why people in fitness centres do not have to wear masks but mothers giving birth do.
She said staff would withhold food until she put a mask on in spite of her weakened state when she was recovering in her room after her C-section, adding that neither the midwives nor anyone else ‘wanted to help me’.
‘There was blood everywhere,’ she added. ‘I had to figure it out myself, all alone in my room, and if someone came in when I didn’t have my mask on they would stop dead until I put it on.’
Neither Maud nor Fanny have filed a formal complaint because they both said it would be futile.
Another woman, Caroline, had her baby during the August 9 heatwave and claims she was made to wear a mask in 104F (40C) without proper ventilation.
She said: ‘After two epidural failures, the pain was unbearable and I was suffocating when I took deep breaths. After 30 minutes I tore the mask off.’
Clementine gave birth at the Necker hospital in Paris at the beginning of September. She said: ‘The mask was soaked with sweat during the delivery, I had to change it twice.’
She also alleged that it was unnatural and that she had not even been able to kiss her baby because of the mask.
Necker Hospital declined to comment on her allegations.
Hospitals have however previously defended the practice as a precaution to limit the spread of COVID-19 as there is not enough time to wait for a coronavirus test result when a woman comes in in labour.
The National College of French Gynaecologists and Obstetricians, however, has said that the situation is ‘exceptional’ and that mask-wearing during labour is ‘desirable’ but cannot be enforced.
Mothers surveyed also criticised coronavirus policies around fathers who are often not allowed to see their newborn babies or partners, even in cases of complications, causing lasting psychological damage and distress for new families.
One woman commented: ‘Being in a single room, I do not understand why my husband could not be confined in my room, which would have allowed me to benefit from his support and for him to share the first four days of his son’s life. I really feel we were robbed of the start of our life together.’
Women’s group ‘Contre les violences Obstetricales et Gynecologiques’ (‘All Against Obstetrical and Gynaecological Violence’) has collected testimony from over 2,000 new and expectant mothers since September 8.
The survey found that 75 per cent of women who have given birth during the COVID-19 pandemic show signs of postpartum depression, but campaign founder and spokesperson, Sonia Bisch noted that it is impossible to know what the statistic was before the pandemic because ‘in France we do not assess this’.
Ms Bisch, 40, said: ‘Even six months after the start of the epidemic in France, our hospitals are still not sufficiently equipped to protect healthcare workers from COVID-19.
‘The French state abandons women who give birth. It lets them give life while being masked. Childbirth, however, requires an intense physical effort. We know how important breathing properly is during childbirth.’
Ms Bisch said that some mothers had even bought FFP2-grade equipment for medical staff and asked them to wear it instead, but doctors mostly refused.
She added that it is astounding that in France you do not have to wear a face mask if you are jogging or doing physical activity, but you do if you are giving birth, even though childbirth is an extremely demanding physical activity comparable to running a marathon.
She said: ‘We would like the Minister of Health to provide maternity hospitals with FFP2 in order to protect nursing staff and to allow women who give birth not to wear a mask and to give birth in good conditions.
‘[There has been] no word from our Minister of Health Olivier Veran since the start of the pandemic on French maternity hospitals. No directive to guide maternity hospitals on the wearing of masks, nor on the presence of the dad during childbirth.