Morrinsville and Te Awamutu maternity units could be doomed simply because women are choosing where to give birth.
That's the view of health minister Tony Ryall, as the Waikato District Health Board prepares to decide whether to close, partially close or keep the two facilities open.
Ryall has so far remained silent on the potential fates of the Matariki and Rhoda Read centres, the focus of a feasibility investigation commissioned by the health board this year.
Both could be centralised to Hamilton following the review's completion - meaning expectant mothers living further afield from the two towns could face an extra 30-minute journey to Hamilton to have their babies.
Midwives and mothers have told of their misgivings and fears that women in labour might not be able to complete that journey before their babies arrived - and some may be forced to give birth on the side of the road.
The health board estimates cost savings of $1.29 million if the two facilities are closed. According to the health board, births and postnatal stays in the two facilities have been declining in recent years. In the 2012/13 year, 81 per cent of women from the Morrinsville/Te Aroha catchment and 85 per cent of women from the Te Awamutu catchment bypassed them to have their babies in Hamilton.
The board will debate the recommendations of the maternity services review at its next meeting, on December 11.
In response to Times inquiries, Mr Ryall said it could be ultimately the actions of the region's mothers - who were free to give birth wherever they wanted - that might determine whether the maternity centres were kept open.
"Women are exercising choice and that's the reason why some maternity units around the country have become increasingly unviable," he said.
"In the Hawke's Bay, for example, only 30 women this year have chosen to give birth in the Napier birthing unit - that equates to less than one birth a week in a unit staffed 24-seven. The majority of Hawke's Bay women choose to give birth in Hastings."
His comments are a change in tack from the National Party's stance on maternity in 2008, which issued a policy statement on the subject in that year.
The statement reads: "A lack of choice in birthing facilities, midwife shortages, and staff shortages are contributing to shorter stays in birthing facilities, and greater pressure is being put on new mothers to leave before they are ready . . . National believes that women should have the opportunity to choose from a range of safe birthing options - and the opportunity to give birth in a facility that is as close to home as appropriate.
"Some DHBs already provide a choice of birthing facilities and we will work with other DHBs to encourage such choices to be provided more widely.
"National will ensure that new mothers may stay in a birthing unit longer so they can establish breastfeeding and the confidence to return home. This means DHBs have to expand birthing facility options to ensure that mothers and their babies are safe and healthy.
"We will provide an extra $11 million a year so new mothers can stay longer in birthing facilities and have better access to breastfeeding support."
Opposition health spokeswoman Annette King said it was telling that the National Party had criticised the lack of birthing centres when it came to power, but was now presiding over their potential closure.
"This goes against his promise to women and families . . . He gave an undertaking and a promise to New Zealand women, and this goes against that."
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