Homebirth midwife Lisa Barrett found not guilty, but hardly exonerated.

not guilty grunge stamp

Deregistered Australian midwife Lisa Barrett was found not guilty in two homebirth deaths.

A former South Australian midwife charged over the deaths of two babies during home births has been found not guilty of two counts of manslaughter.

In the first case of its kind in Australia, Lisa Barrett, 52, pleaded not guilty over the deaths of Tully Kavanagh in 2011 and another baby boy in 2012, who cannot be identified.

In the Supreme Court on Tuesday Justice Ann Vanstone cleared her on both counts…

“Although I find that the accused’s conduct was less than competent, I am not satisfied that her conduct merits criminal sanction.

“My verdict in relation to each count is not guilty.”

I have written about Barrett repeatedly over the past decade. Her involvement in multiple homebirth deaths nearly defies belief.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Who’s responsible when a baby dies at homebirth, mother or midwife?[/pullquote]

Tate Spencer-Koch, Jahli Jean Hobbs, Sam, Tully Kavanaugh and Ian died because Lisa Barrett minimized the risks of homebirth when counseling their mothers, all of whom were at high risk for complications. Of these deaths, 1 was a shoulder dystocia, 2 were second twins, and 2 were breech babies. They died because Lisa Barrett could not handle the complications that were predicted. They died because their mothers did not have the Cesareans that would have saved the babies lives.

The practice of homebirth is notable for its recklessness, but even so Lisa Barrett was in a class by herself. During the Coroner’s inquest into the deaths of Tate and Jahli Jean, Barrett was caught live tweeting the proceedings and offering scathing comments about the prosecution’s case. If that weren’t contemptuous enough, Barrett also managed to find the time to attend Tully’s homebirth death. As a result, the Coroner’s inquest was expanded to include both Tully’s death and Sam’s death.

The report, released in 2012 was scathing in its assessment of Barrett’s conduct. So why wasn’t she found guilty of criminal charges?

I don’t yet have access to the full decision, but I suspect it might have something to do with the argument made by her defense counsel:

In closing submissions, Scott Henchliffe, for Barrett, said there “was no law that made anything that Barrett did, that we have heard about in this case, illegal”.

He said the two mother’s whose babies died had “self-serving memories” of their pregnancies and births and held Barrett responsible for the outcomes.

“The decision to homebirth was their own and in the most general sense it was that decision which, when the risks eventuated, led to both them losing their babies,” he said.

“It’s only human nature for them to seek to put themselves in the light where they carry less guilt or blame or responsibility for what ultimately occurred.”

In other words, these mothers knew the risks, took the gamble and lost.

There’s considerable evidence to support that defense in the case of Tully Kavanaugh. During the inquest into his death:

Expectant mother Sarah Kerr told an obstetrician she was willing to risk the death of one of her twins by having a home birth, a court has heard…

Dr Raman told Deputy State Coroner Anthony Schapel that Ms Kerr, seemed to have “made up her mind” about having a home delivery. That was despite knowing the increased risk of giving birth to twins at home.

“She said she understood either twin could die and she wanted to accept that risk,” Dr Raman said.

And if that weren’t damning enough:

Dr Raman said she asked Ms Kerr about her ante-natal care and who her treating midwife and general practitioner was.

She said Ms Kerr replied that birthing advocate and former midwife Lisa Barrett had been advising her with her pregnancy, but that she didn’t support the couple’s decision to have a home birth.

“She said her midwife didn’t support her twin delivery at home and she wasn’t in favour of it,” Dr Raman said.

Furthermore, Kerr testified at the inquest in defense of Lisa Barrett. Noting that she had attended an earlier hearing about Barrett’s involvement in other homebirth deaths:

In the Coroner’s Court yesterday, Ms Kerr said she was not discouraged from a home delivery despite in August hearing of the adverse outcomes of home births. Ms Kerr told Deputy State Coroner Anthony Schapel she took full responsibility for her actions and was aware of the increased risk of the delivery of twins.

“No one can say I didn’t make an informed choice, I sat through every day of evidence,” she said.

It was only later that Kerr decided she had been misled.

So Lisa Barrett was hardly exonerated and she has paid a high price — legally and financially — for her recklessness. But, at least in Australia, it appears that mothers who choose homebirth in defiance of medical advice bear greater responsibility for the outcome than the midwife who agreed to help them.