“You are sitting in a court of law, not a court of morals.” Thus spoke prosecutor Michael Byrne in his summing up of the case against a woman who’d taken a drug to terminate a pregnancy. The woman, just twenty years old, had been charged under Queensland law with procuring an abortion. This was 2010 not the dark ages. Protest marches were held all over Australia in support of women's rights.
I’ve been thinking about maternity care and why there's not the same outcry in response to what happens to women when they make choices about birth. When homebirth is reported in the media, it’s mostly because a baby has died and someone must be blamed. More often than not, it’s the mother and her midwife who are blamed. I wonder why we are demonising women, again. Are women really killing their babies? Are midwives? Is that what they were doing? Where is destroying-the-joint when it comes to birth?
I wrote my book The Birth Wars because when I worked for a review of maternity services in 2005, I met so many women who had such awful experiences of maternity care. I wanted midwives and doctors to know the cost of their wars on women and families. More recently, I wrote In Falling Snow, which is a novel about women across key moments of history, during World War I when women couldn’t study medicine or pursue careers and have a family, during the seventies when women were told they could have it all. It’s a novel about motherhood and the heartbreak and joy it brings, the incredible courage of ordinary mothers. One of the central characters is an obstetrician, working at the dawn of women in the discipline, facing all the issues women face today. The other is a nurse during World War I, in many ways facing the same issues.
Researching The Birth Wars, I met some of those demons who opt for homebirth in Australia. Some were fleeing the hospital system after a bad experience. Others were always going to have their babies at home. Still others had decided in pregnancy. They were just like me, most of all wanting a healthy start for new life. They weren’t demons. They weren't nuts.
In The Netherlands, it’s assumed that if you have no complications in pregnancy, you’ll have your baby at home. They don’t even call it homebirth. If things go wrong, a retrieval team is ready to come to the home and take you to hospital. It's still cheaper than hospital birth. The midwives don’t hate obstetricians, and the obstetricians don’t hate midwives.
How come the stories about homebirth in Australia never conclude that we should make it safe for women, if it’s not safe? Why is it that when people talk about homebirth, they blame the women who choose the option and the midwives or doctors who provide the care and not the system that doesn’t support homebirth? Why can’t we have safe homebirth, when the UK can?
I’m not a homebirth advocate, far from it. Love science, love medicine. I do worry though that we’re becoming increasingly vicious in our hatred of women who make a choice I might not make. And that really scares me.
A jury took just an hour to find the young woman who'd made the choice to terminate pregnancy not guilty. It makes me cry when I think that twelve citizens could be so sensible, so basically decent. I just wish we could bring some of their wisdom to the current fight over birth.
I had a big response to my earlier post on this issue asking about books and I thought more debate might be refreshing. 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