NHS birth centres 'under threat'
Birth centres across Britain are under threat because of a shortage of cash and midwives, campaigners have warned.
The National Childbirth Trust is urging the government to take action after six of the NHS-run units recently closed permanently or temporarily.
The centres, of which Britain has about 100, offer more "homely" care than maternity units, campaigners say.
The government said it was up to NHS trusts to decide how best to provide a choice of maternity services.
The NCT said the closures in Hampshire, West Yorkshire and Lancashire were threatening to undermine the government's pledge that by 2009 women will have a choice of where and how they can give birth.
Birth centres are run by the NHS either in the community or linked to hospitals. They are staffed by midwives.
But the NCT said the units were being affected by cash shortages - one in four trusts finished last year in deficit - and a shortage of midwives that has led some trusts to recall staff to hospitals.
Some of the NHS trusts running the centres which have closed have said they will reopen in the future.
But NCT head of policy research Mary Newburn said: "We know that access to birth centres helps to increase normal birth and reduces unnecessary medical interventions.
"In turn this means there are less infections, so both the patient and health service benefits.
"Birth centres are popular with women and their families. Women tell us that the opportunity to give birth in a birth centre helps them to relax and gives them a positive experience of birth.
"The government acknowledges this themselves but unfortunately its policy is not being put into practice across the country."
According to the NCT, 16% of women give birth in birth centres, 2% at home and the rest in hospital.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "Maternity services are a matter for local NHS trusts.
"Trusts need to provide a mixture of choices so women have a choice, but it is up to them to decide how this is done."
She denied the 2009 target was not at risk because of recent closures.
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