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Exploring moral distress in Australian midwifery practice

Foster, Wendy; McKellar, Lois; Fleet, Julie-Anne; Sweet, Linda


Wendy Foster

Julie-Anne Fleet

Linda Sweet


Australian midwives are considering leaving the profession. Moral distress may be a contributing factor, yet there is limited research regarding the influence of moral distress on midwifery practice.

Moral distress was first used to describe the psychological harm incurred following actions or inactions that oppose an individuals’ moral values. Current research concerning moral distress in midwifery is varied and often focuses only on one aspect of practice.

To explore Australian midwives experience and consequences of moral distress.

Semi-structured interviews were used to understand the experiences of moral distress of 14 Australian midwives. Interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Data were analysed using thematic analysis and NVIVO12©.

Three key themes were identified: experiencing moral compromise; experiencing moral constraints, dilemmas and uncertainties; and professional and personal consequences. Describing hierarchical and oppressive health services, midwives indicated they were unable to adequately advocate for themselves, their profession, and the women in their care.

It is evident that some midwives experience significant and often ongoing moral compromise as a catalyst to moral distress. A difference in outcomes between early career midwives and those with more than five years experiences suggests the cumulative nature of moral distress is a significant concern. A possible trajectory across moral frustration, moral distress, and moral injury with repeated exposure to morally compromising situations could explain this finding.

This study affirms the presence of moral distress in Australian midwives and identified the cumulative effect of moral compromise on the degree of moral distress experienced.


Foster, W., McKellar, L., Fleet, J., & Sweet, L. (2022). Exploring moral distress in Australian midwifery practice. Women and Birth, 35(4), 349-359.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Sep 6, 2021
Online Publication Date Oct 12, 2021
Publication Date 2022-07
Deposit Date Jun 6, 2022
Journal Women and Birth
Print ISSN 1871-5192
Publisher Elsevier
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 35
Issue 4
Pages 349-359
Keywords Moral distress, Midwifery workforce, Workforce sustainability, Ethics, Moral, Compromise
Public URL