Birth Mussels

While we’re destroying the joint, can we give fifteen minutes to women and birth, because if I hear another man on the radio telling women they’re putting their babies’ lives at risk, I am going to scream.

I worked on a review of maternity services in 2005. When later that year I was invited to write an essay for a collection celebrating a hundred years of women’s suffrage, I decided to write about women and birth because while at first glance, we’ve come a long way – control over conception, pain relief and safer maternity care – we've actually gained less than we've lost.

Researching what became the book, The Birth Wars, which explores the conflict preventing progress in maternity care in Australia, I  met hundreds of women whose experiences – IN THE FIRST DECADE OF THE 21ST CENTURY – shocked me. 

Some women were abused by obstetricians because they did or didn’t want a particular kind of pain relief during labour. Women were made fun of, or talked sternly to, like a naughty child, by midwives or obstetricians, when they were at their most vulnerable, naked and prone on a table. Women had their babies taken from them and placed in nurseries as a matter of course, the babies fed formula against the woman's wishes. Others were treated like pariahs by midwives because they weren’t breastfeeding. Women were punished and abused and neglected just because they wanted something their carers didn’t like – to hold their babies straight after birth, to bury their placenta under a full moon, to save their cord blood, to get a good night’s sleep while they could.

In any other area of life, especially one that matters so much culturally and emotionally, we’d name this for what it is, patronising, bullying, and yes, misogyny, by whatever dictionary you define it, that wellspring of so much that’s happened to women and their bodies for so long.

In  subsequent pregnancies, some of the women I interviewed  fled the maternity care system in one way or another, or remained within it like commandos, going into hospital late, bringing backup carers of their own, writing strategic birth plans ahead of time. Some chose homebirth. And when they did, they were told they were putting their babies’ lives at risk.  

Birth is a deeply personal experience for women and families. For better or worse, it's also become a medical experience. And it’s a cultural experience, important to the future of humans. Feminism, the movement with most hope of shifting perceptions, of re-introducing women’s rights around their bodies and birth, is quick to defend a woman’s right to choose when it comes to abortion but is almost silent about birth and in particular homebirth where a fight could currently be fought. Motherhood generally is a blind spot for feminism, and birth taboo. 

I am not an advocate for homebirth. Personally, I like to know there’s drugs and a doctor and a midwife at the other end of the corridor just in case I’ll need any of them. I'd really like it if hospitals were better, safer and more respectful places to give birth. And world peace. But I also think we should provide choice for women, including the choice  to birth safely at home, and I’d like to think homebirth could become part of what's normal as it is in other places. Surely women can have this choice and good maternity care without someone suddenly saying they're speaking for the unborn child whose safety is paramount. God, it sounds so familiar!

Postscript. I had a big response to this post and I thought more debate might be refreshing so I've posted again, for those interested, taking account of comments, thank you. Feel free to leave comments below, on birth, feminism, wars and motherhood. Or just say hi. I'm afraid shops don't stock The Birth Wars anymore but you can try ABC Books or message me and I'll find a copy. In Falling Snow is  available in bookstores. You can  find me on Facebook or Twitter @MaryRoseMacColl