“Freebirthing” on Discovery Health Channel

This TV documentary first aired in Nov. 2008, and I finally watched it the other day (my mom taped it, but I’ve been too busy at her house to sit and watch it every time I’ve gone over there)… and it’s coming on again soon. While watching it, I took notes with the intent of talking about it fully, but since I’ve found out that it’s airing in a few days or so, I don’t want to spoil it for any of you who haven’t seen it yet.

“Freebirthing” is another name for “unassisted childbirth” (UC), or giving birth without any medical professionals around. A few women take it to the extreme of planning (or wanting, but not quite planning) to give birth completely alone, without even their husbands around, but most have the baby’s father and/or one or more friends in attendance. For my part, even if I was 100% positive that absolutely nothing would go wrong with either me or the baby, I’d still want my husband there as well as a doula or midwife. I wouldn’t want a lot of people, because I think I’d feel self-conscious; and assuming it would be in my home, I would still be partly playing the part of hostess (making sure they were comfortable, had enough to eat or drink, telling them where the glasses were, etc.), which would interfere with labor. But I’d want the company in labor, for sure, as well as a knowledgeable woman who would help me, especially with back labor (which I’ve had both times I’ve given birth, so assume I would have again).

I’m in a unique position, in that I’ve had an unplanned unassisted birth. I’ve gone through labor once without anyone around, and wouldn’t wish that on anyone — or at least, not unless it’s a very short, precipitous labor and birth. If someone chooses that, then I suppose that’s fine; but when I read comments from women who promote entirely solo labor and birth as their ideal, I tell them my experience so that they know it just might not turn out the way they dream. It sucks not having anyone to talk to, or to encourage you, or to apply counterpressure when the contractions hurt your back. It just sucks, and I think women need to be prepared for that possibility, and not just assume that since there isn’t anyone around interfering with the labor space, labor energy, or labor dance that it will be the best birth imaginable.

On to my review of the show.

It follows three women who plan an unassisted birth: Claire is in London and is giving birth to her 3rd child, without the father around; Heather is in Colorado and is giving birth to her and her husband’s 2nd child, after enduring a load of unwanted interventions with her first baby; and Cleo is in Wales (I think), giving birth to her and her husband’s second baby.

Throughout the show, there are various bits of interviews with doctors and midwives who question the reasoning behind why women would give birth unassisted, and telling of some of the possibilities that might happen which could put the mother or baby at risk. One doctor, however, seems to think that “unassisted” means that the woman will be entirely alone, because he gives the “what-if” of her having a horrible hemorrhage after birth and being unable to make it even so far as to a telephone to tell someone she’s bleeding massively, so they can come in and save her. Obviously, if a woman is giving birth with a husband, friend, doula, or anyone around, this isn’t going to happen — even if the doctor is correct that she would bleed so much in just a few minutes, there would be someone right there to call emergency services immediately, without a word from the mother.

Since I don’t want to spoil it for any of you, I won’t go into the specifics of the women nor the births — I’ll let you watch all of that on your own.

I will say this about one of the doctor interviews in the early part of the show — she expresses some disbelief that women would do this, and asks why would they take the “extreme” risk, when there is every medical benefit available in the hospital. When I heard this question, I thought, “She answered her own question, didn’t she?!”

Why is “freebirthing” growing in popularity? Part of it may be hearing other women’s glowing reports about how they felt at their child’s birth — some particular something about the narrative appeals to other women, who also want to feel that way. Some women report painless or less-pain labors and births when not having a midwife, doctor, or nurses around. Some women talk about the empowerment of “the buck stops here” acceptance of responsibility when taking this step. Some women may choose UC for the same types of reasons other people choose to climb Mt. Everest or go sky-diving or something. Some women may just like to thumb their nose at all authority, so if the authorities tell them to birth in the hospital, that’s the last place they’ll go; if they say women must have a birth attendant, then they absolutely refuse. There are other facets, undoubtedly, that appeal to some women. But if doctors, midwives, and anyone else who dislikes the idea of UC really want to limit the trend or stop it altogether, they must figure out why women go to this extreme, and take the risk (which is small, but it is there), rather than to have a midwife attend them at home, or to go to the hospital. UC can’t really be outlawed — after all, a woman could just say, “Oops! It happened too fast!” and as long as she didn’t have any evidence to the contrary (such as telling people prior to the birth she was planning a UC, telling her birth story about her long drawn-out labor in which she refused to go to the hospital, videotaping the birth, etc.), what could be done? So, if doctors or midwives want to stop this, they have two choices — scare women out of doing it, or make the alternatives more appealing.

The scare tactics won’t work… or at least, not well. The plain truth is, most of the time, even in the worst of circumstances, everything goes right. Look at Sierra Leone’s statistics, which has among the worst if not the worst statistics when it comes to maternal, neonatal, and infant mortality. Even with a 2100/100,000 maternal death rate, that means that for every 100,000 women who give birth, 97,900 women survive; about 2% do not. And that is the worst country in the world, with undernourished women, early marriages and children giving birth to children, and with almost no skilled prenatal, intrapartum, or postpartum care. Their neonatal statistics are likewise appalling, but also most babies make it. No, I’m not saying that this level of mortality is okay, but if the most dangerous place to give birth in the world has this small of a percentage of deaths — without quick and easy transports to hospitals, or simple life-saving measures like blood transfusions or antibiotics — then trying to scare women that they’ll be one of the unlucky ones will not work. Playing the odds, they’ll do just fine, and so will their babies. They’ll hear one bad story but ten good ones, or twenty good ones, or a hundred good ones. They’ll “forget” the bad one, or say “it won’t happen to me because…” And, odds are, they’re right, because most births, from the most unassisted of the unassisted, to the most medical of the medical, will turn out just fine. Not all will; but they’re willing to play the odds.

Why? Because the alternative is undesirable to them. Most women who give birth at home (unassisted or otherwise) have already had one or more hospital births, so they know just what they are walking away from. What is it about hospital birth that is so undesirable to us home-birthers? That is the question those who oppose home birth and unassisted birth should really, really consider. Rather than tossing it off as a rhetorical question, they need to realize that they already have the answer. In some cases, women endured horrible experiences at the hands of those who were supposed to care for them — they speak of it in terms of rape and assault.  Heather, the American UC-er on the documentary, was threatened with a C-section at full dilation if she didn’t push right — she ended up pushing very hard and the baby came out in something like ten minutes, and she wonders why the threat when there was no need? She chose to give birth unassisted the next time around, rather than place herself in the hands of people who treated her so poorly in her first labor. Then the question becomes, are they — the doctors and others who oppose home-birth — willing to make the changes to accommodate our wishes and needs, so that we will have no qualms about hospital birth? As long as the answer remains no, home-birth and unassisted birth will continue to increase in popularity.


6 Responses

  1. Interesting! Do you know when it’s airing again? I am reading that thesis you posted, and it’s very interesting. I’m not into UC for myself, but it’s a fascinating subject. My midwife told me that she’s had one (or two) UCers come to her for prenatals, and one or both called her when they were in labor saying “Get over here now!!!” It’s a lot easier from the outside. But hey, if that’s what a woman wants, sure!

  2. I personally thought UC was a crazy concept and although I still have issues with the completely alone uc birth I have come to respect and admire woman who take charge of their pregnancy and birth.

    I had the opp to attend a UC that was just me the momma and her mama and it was the most amazing birth I have ever attended.

    Mom was a 17 year 1st time mom and she breezed though it with only a 5 hours labor.

    When I attend births at the hospital I always walk away elated a new soul has joined the earth but also drained after playing the polictical game within the hospital and feeling like I have to be on gaurd the whole time to protect mama.

    With the uc birth it was a peaceful gentle event that flowed with time.

    THere were no vaginal check to see how far she progressed ( it intresting to relize how much I had depended on them as markers of labor) it was just flowing with the moment, time had no meaning as she labored in the room where baby was created.

    I pray that the univese sends me more clients like this!

    • Brandy,

      In my first labor, I had one exam when the midwife got there, and one more after I started spontaneously pushing. In my second labor, I didn’t have any. In telling my birth stories, I feel like I’m “missing” or “leaving out” a vital piece of information when I don’t say, “And when I got to 6 cm…. and then at 8 cm….” because I simply don’t know when I dilated to what degree.

  3. Fantastic blog. I had four UAHBs… unassisted hospital births… 😀 If I could turn back time, I would’ve stayed home. I was out of my house a grand total of five hours with my last one – seems to me the hospital was a waste of gas. Like Kathy, no one does unnecessary internal exams, no one tells me when I need to push, what I can eat or drink, or anything.

    If God blesses me with #5, I absolutely won’t be leaving my house, and I haven’t decided if I’ll even have a midwife. I’m looking forward to it.

  4. I think I’m with you, Kathy, about completely Unattended UC. Personally, I think it puts way too much on the mamma to not only midwife herself, but doula herself, too! You have to sink into “labour land”, and all that cognitive thinking would get in the way, not to mention, you can’t exactly do counter-pressure to yourself!

    I had my son 19 years ago, in the hospital, when I was 19. I had no support, and was induced with Pitocin, and had a severe over-reaction to the Pit (first contraction was 7 1/2 min long, and STRONG!!!). I not only had to labour in one position on the bed (every time I shifted position, my son’s heart rate would drop), but had no one there with me. I only had the nurse coming in once an hour or so to check the machines and up my Pit dose (and scold me for how poorly I was coping with labour! – Really? I was going without pain meds, and was having a super-intense, induced labour!!! Let’s see THEM cope with that!!!). I, too, would never wish that on anyone!

    There is a local doula who is also an underground midwife, who had an UC with her second. The only person she had in attendance was her partner, who was not her first child’s father, and had never been at a birth before. She tells the story in her blog, and even she remarks that she had a much harder time with that labour, that she had a hard time getting “in the groove”. While I doubt that she would consider it as a possibility, I do believe that having to wear so many “hats” was likely a factor in her challenge in entering “labour land”.

    As for an UC that is attended by knowledgeable women… I think there can be a place for that, assuming some basic, common-sense precautions were taken (such as training in Neonatal CPR, and ensuring quick transport to the hospital, if that were needed, etc.). More importantly, though, I think we need to have midwives who are not just trained in emergency measures, but are also trained in how to simply sit in a corner and knit (and observe quietly) and become “invisible” when appropriate.

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