Before I begin, let me say as a matter of full disclosure that I feel strongly that the concept presented here is a really bad idea. I would never do it. But it keeps floating through my in-box and it’s about parenting, so here goes.
The topic is free-birthing, also known as unassisted childbirth or do-it-yourself delivery. The practice involves women having babies at home with no outside assistance other than family members. The philosophy goes something like this: women’s bodies know how to deliver babies and interventions from doctors or even midwives just muck up the process.
In recent months the free-birthing movement has generated buzz fueled by media articles and blog posts. Yesterday, the Washington Post ran this piece on the topic which I guess means it really is a trend. Although there are no actual numbers to quantify how many people practice free-birthing, according to the Post article, among the 4.1 million babies born in the United States in 2004, the National Center for Health Statistics reports that more than 7,000 were born at home without a midwife or physician.
Some of those may have been bad timing, in which the pregnant woman simply couldn’t get to the hospital fast enough. But a growing number seem to be women who choose to stay home for the delivery. Many plan to use 911 as a backup if things go awry.
For most, a desire to retain control over one of life’s most emotional, intimate and primal processes is paramount. “Childbirth is a natural event, and I really don’t need all the technology,” said [Lynn] Griesemer, who, like many freebirthers, shuns doctors and opposes routine immunizations for her children. Unassisted birth, she adds, allows the husband to play a central, rather than a supporting, role and is better for the whole family.
Also quoted in the story is Laura Kaplan Shanley from Boulder, Colorado, another leader in the free-birthing movement. She gave birth to five babies at home. According to the article, Shanley says she caught one baby herself, pulled another out by his feet and gave birth to a third alone while her toddler sons slept in the next room, then cut the cord herself.
“A fourth child didn’t make it. Four weeks premature, he was born in the bathroom while Shanley’s 19-month-old daughter stood beside her. He died a few hours later of a heart defect, pneumonia and sepsis. Shanley said the coroner told her a hospital birth wouldn’t have made a difference.”
In 1994 Shanley published a book called “Unassisted Childbirth.” She also has a website called Bornfree. Here is some of what she has to say on her site:
Drugs, machinery, and medical personnel are no match for a woman’s own intellect and intuition. Birth is sexual and spiritual, magical and miraculous – but not when it’s managed, controlled, and manipulated by the medical establishment, or hindered by the mother’s own mind.
I’m biting my tongue.
Throughout the article, many experts in the field of women’s health express concern over the prospect of women delivering babies without assistance from a trained professional.
“Obviously we don’t think unassisted home birth is a good idea,” said Judy Norsigian, executive director of Our Bodies Ourselves, a pioneering feminist health group based in Boston. “There are deaths from these births that I personally know of,” Norsigian said, most of which are preventable and resulted from the failure to recognize clear-cut warning signs: decelerations in the fetal heart rate, indicating respiratory distress; a breech position, in which the baby is sideways or feet first; and umbilical cord abnormalities, which can lead to brain damage or stillbirth.
In addition to the voice of Our Bodies Ourselves, the article includes comments from obstetricians and midwives claiming that free-birthing puts both mothers and babies at risk. This next quote I think is particularly interesting, given that it comes from a midwife.
Mairi Breen Rothman is a suburban Maryland certified nurse-midwife who gave birth to two of her four children at home with “lots of midwives” in attendance. Rothman, a spokeswoman for the American College of Nurse-Midwives, said that expert guidance for women in labor is crucial — and is best provided by a trained professional, not a self-educated layperson.
“For a healthy woman, the overwhelming likelihood is that unassisted birth will be fine,” Rothman said. “But a woman having a baby is not in a position to be monitoring herself.”
All I’ll say is, when even the midwives are questioning whether you’ve gone too far, maybe you really have crossed the line. I’ll stop there and ask you all to comment instead. What do you think of freebirthing?