Posted by: emjb | August 13, 2007

Why aren’t we being heard, dammit?

I am so much a newbie and a bit-player in the whole birth-rights movement, but I still get so angry and riled up when I read stories like this one (warning; original link has some birth pictures, not gory, but nekkid).

The forces arrayed against women who want to have control of their own births seem so large and powerful. We trust doctors to tell us what to do, how to take care of ourselves and our children, how to be healthy and stay safe. We lionize them in shows like House , ER, St. Elsewhere, even MASH . Saintly, all-knowing doctors abound in our imagination. They may have messy personal lives, but you hardly ever see actual practices being confronted; just the occasional Bad Doctor, or lazy doctor, or drug-addicted doctor, whatever. Probably because the shows’ writers know how to write good soap opera, but only know what their consultants tell them about hospital practice.

Anyway, Sagefemme’s post echoes the frustration of people like myself and midwives in particular, who remain powerless to stop their clients from being abused and hurt by aggressive, hostile, and ultimately harmful practices.

I’m not talking natural vs medicated. I’m talking unhindered vs interfered-with birth. I’m talking about barely making it out without being cut one way or another. About your baby being handled roughly. About silence and intimacy not being a piece of your baby’s birth. There are even some homebirth midwives that don’t get the idea of unhindered birth. Really, it’s my new platform. It’s the reason why I’m so angry. We can’t keep bringing the hospital into the home! We have to do this radically different – ways that honor a woman’s physiological process of birth. We have to step back and ask if we’re doing things to really help a mamababy or are we just doing things to cover our ass in case we’re looked at by someone? Is this evidence-based or are we doing it because it’s what our peers believe is necessary?

There’s this mis-perception that the safest birth is the one with the most instruments, procedures, people, and processes involved. But every bit of interference in natural birth–from restricting the mother’s movements and ability to get protein and hydrate herself to dictating her positions to push and whether she has to use drugs–comes with its own risk.

Let’s take another natural process–say, eating. Now eating does have risks; we’ve all nearly choked to death on something, or eaten something that made us sick, or gave us an allergic reaction. At least some of those risks could be mitigated if we received all our nutrition via IV and feeding tubes, the way comatose people are fed. But of course, this would restrict our movements, introduce risks of infection and malnourishment, and be painful and psychologically damaging. It would rob us of our freedom in the name of protecting us from bodily mishaps.

Now let’s assume that for the convenience of the doctors observing them, those who wished to eat were required to lie on a table with their feet tilted higher than their head, being questioned and monitored constantly by anxious medical personnel, while trying to eat a ham sandwich, potato chips, and a coke. What are the chances, now, that the patient will have trouble swallowing, and may even start to choke? And what if every time this happened, the surgeons rushed into to install a “safer” feeding tube “saving” the patient’s life?

Birth is no different. The muscles in a woman’s uterus that handle birth are just as capable as the muscles in her throat and gut that digest her food. But being pressured “for her own good” by people she trusts in white coats, to lie down and push on her back, to be prevented from moving because she’s attached to cables and monitors, to have strangers hovering over her frowning as they check her machine readouts and dilation, has a physiological and psychological effect. She doubts herself, she feels afraid and threatened, and her body reacts by tensing and slowing down.

In rushes the surgeon with the scalpel, ready to save her from the emergency that might not have existed if she’d just been left the hell alone.

This model has got to go. It’s harmful, it’s degrading, it’s disrespectful, and it’s bad practice. It’s sexist, because it assumes women’s bodies are inherently broken and incapable, and they need someone to save them from their inability to birth. Practices that separate and interrupt mother and baby bonding postpartum disrupt a key psychological event in the relationship of a mother and child, and their loved ones, in the name of control and hospital convenience. There are no good medical reasons to drag a normal health baby off to a nursery for observation. Leave him in his mother’s arms and observe him there, where he’s safest and she’s most at peace.

Women are people, not pieces of meat, and they deserve that personhood at all times, especially as they do the hard work of bringing new life into the world. They are not born broken, but they are being broken by a system that doesn’t care about them or their babies. And more of them are realizing it all the time.



  1. Well then, you’ll enjoy yourself at Ricki Lake’s new movie ‘The Business of Being Born’. I saw it over the weekend at a small theatre where she’s showing it in hopes of Oscar nods. I was tense and pissed walking out of there, as were most of the birth pros.

  2. Oooh, I wish that were showing here. Damn it Ricki!

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