Image The cesarean rate is Brazil has been high for a long time, and it is getting higher.  In private hospitals, almost all women deliver by cesarean; in public hospitals it’s about half.  According to Ricki Lake, who went to Brazil in the process of filming The Business of Being Born, “There was actually a joke circulating that the only way to have a natural birth in Rio was if your doctor got stuck in traffic.”  Brazil’s childbirth practices have come to attention recently because of Adelir Carmen Lemos de Góes, who on April 1, 2014, was taken by police to have a forced cesarean under court order.  Here’s an account of what happened from The Guardian:

…Brazilian mother Adelir Carmen Lemos de Góes was preparing for her third birth. Despite living in a country with one of the highest caesarean rates in the world (82% for those with private insurance and 50% for those without), she was looking forward to giving birth vaginally after previously having caesareans she felt were unnecessary.  However, in the midst of her labour, six armed police banged on her front door. Despite there being no question of reduced mental capacity, doctors had obtained a court order allowing them to perform a caesarean…Adelir was taken from her home, forcibly anaesthetised and operated on without consent.

Attorney Jill Filopovic writes,

A Brazilian court granted a prosecutor’s request for the appointment of a special guardian. And just in case it was unclear whose life gets prioritized when a woman has a c-section against her will, the judge specified that when there is a ‘conflict of interests of the mother with the child’s life … the interests of the child predominate over hers.’

Filopovic quotes Dr. Simone Diniz, associate professor in the department of maternal and child health at the University of São Paulo: 

In our culture, childbirth is something that is primitive, ugly, nasty, inconvenient….It’s part of Catholic culture that this experience of childbirth should come with humiliation.

The Atlantic subsequently ran a longer piece by Olga Khazan, “Why Most Brazilian Women Get C-Sections,” which, also points to a confluence of attitudes, practices, policies, and norms that lead to a trend toward universal cesarean.  Humiliation isn’t hard to come by in Brazilian obstetrics.  Khazan reports,

Many physicians’ attitudes toward childbirth weave together Brazil’s macho culture with traditional sexual mores….When women are in labor, some doctors say, ‘When you were doing it, you didn’t complain, but now that you’re here, you cry.’

Mariana Bahia, who participated in protests against forced cesarean, noted:

There’s no horizontality between patients and doctors.  Doctors are always above us.

And Paula Viana, head of a women’s rights organization, said,

We have a really serious problem in Brazil that the doctors over-cite evidence [of fetal distress].  They think they can interfere as they would like.

But much of what these various articles says about childbirth in Brazil is eerily similar to what happens in the United States.  Khazan quotes Maria do Carmo Leal, a researcher at the National Public Health School at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation about birth practices in Brazil:

Here, when a woman is going to give birth, even natural birth, the first thing many hospitals do is tie her to the bed by putting an IV in her arm, so she can’t walk, can’t take a bath, can’t hug her husband. The use of drugs to accelerate contractions is very common, as are episiotomies.  What you get is a lot of pain, and a horror of childbirth. This makes a cesarean a dream for many women.

In the United States, Pitocin induction and augmentation are ubiquitous , and episiotomies, though less common than in Brazil, are still greatly overused.  Almost all U.S. hospitals use IV hydration as a matter of policy (rather than allowing women to eat and drink as they please, which is the evidence based recommendation).  And in the U.S., taking a bath in labor may be impossible, as many hospitals do not provide bathtubs out of a misguided fear of women attempting waterbirths. The website My OB Said What documents a seemingly endless stream of U.S. health professionals’ humiliating comments, such as referring to a pregnant women as a “little girls,” criticizing their weight, or belittling their pain.

Court ordered cesareans occur in the United States as well, as Erin Davenport documents in “Court Ordered Cesarean Sections: Why Courts Should Not Be Allowed to Use a Balancing Test.”  Davenport notes that forced cesareans are generally ordered because of concerns for fetal welfare–as in Brazil, U.S. courts often privilege the rights of the fetus over those of the pregnant woman.

Alissa Scheller created infographics on Huffington Post showing how states’ policies are used to persecute and prosecute pregnant in the name of fetal welfare.

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National Advocates for Pregnant Women, whose research supplied much of the information for the above graphic, documents the legal control of pregnant women that occurs in the name of fetal rights, such as prosecuting a woman for murder after a suicide attempt while pregnant (in this case, the baby–born by cesarean–was alive, but died a few days later).

While the cesarean rate in the United States is much lower than in Brazil, a third of U.S. births are by cesarean, more than double the “threshold not to be exceeded” identified by the World Health Organization.  Khazan notes the parallels between Brazil’s medical system and the the system in the U.S.–both incentivize cesareans:

With the higher price of the private system [in Brazil] comes better amenities and shorter wait times, but also all of the trappings of fee-for-service medical care. C-sections can be easily scheduled and quickly executed, so doctors schedule and bill as many as eight procedures a day rather than wait around for one or two natural births to wrap up.

As in Brazil, though some cesareans performed in the U.S. are certainly in the interest of maternal and/or fetal well-being, many are in the interest of the obstetrician’s well-being.  There is still a convenience factor; in addition, OB-GYN Dr. Peter Doelger said doctors and hospitals are protecting themselves by following protocols based a fear of litigation:

So you’re stuck with this situation where we’re doing things, not based on science.  [The increase in C-sections is] really based on protecting the institution and ourselves. And, you can’t blame them. Getting sued is a horrible thing for the physician, a horrible thing for the nurse, and a horrible thing for the institution.

And the woman?  Well as long as the baby is healthy, does she matter?

There are two legal ways to have an abortion in the United States, through surgery or medication.  Medication abortions are those induced through taking mifepristone pills (which were called RU486 when they were developed).  Mifepristone is not Plan B (levonorgestrel, a synthetic form of progesterone) or Ella (ulipristal acetate, which suppresses progesterone production). Plan B and Ella have nothing to do with abortion; both stop ovulation in order to prevent pregnancy.  Mifepristone causes the expulsion of an embryo in an established pregnancy, much like a spontaneous miscarriage.

There are three main restrictions put on medical abortions in the United States:

  1. Pills must be provided by a licensed physician (not a nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, or other qualified health practitioner)
  2. Pills must be provided through an in-person patient-physician visit
  3. Pills must be provided according to the original FDA protocol (much lower doses of the pills have since been found to be effective)

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White states have the least restrictive policies, and dark green states have the most restrictive.  You can find an interactive version of this map at the Mother Jones website (the map does have some inaccuracies; Iowa and Arizona in particular currently have stays against some of their restrictions).

Restriction #1: Licensed Physicians 

That the pills can only be provided by a licensed physician is a restriction that is not solely promoted by opponents of abortion. It is a restriction in place in states that receive an “A” from NARAL Pro-Choice America on choice related law (find your state’s laws and grade here).

Physicians often oppose legislation that would allow medical practitioners who are not physicians–including midwives, advanced practice nurses, or pharmacists–to provide care that is within their scope of training.  Doctors often make the same argument that abortion opponents make: that they are trying to keep women “safe”  (e.g. doctors protect women from midwifery care in New York; doctors protect people from receiving primary care from nurse practitioners in Texas; doctors protect people from vaccination by pharmacists in Florida).

In her novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a story of a futuristic society in which the United States is taken over by the Christian Right, the characters identify differences between “freedom to” and “freedom from.” If you haven’t read the book, go get it and read it immediately.  In any case, Aunt Lydia, who trains women to accept their role in the new society, says,

There is more than one kind of freedom…Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.

“Freedom to” gives women agency and choice.  “Freedom from” restricts them in exchange for safety and protection.  In the novel, “freedom from” involves wearing burkah-like clothing, not being allowed to read, and bearing children for religious couples with political standing.  This supposedly frees women from rape, responsibility, and thinking.

In any case, the paternalistic “protection” of making physicians the only practitioners who can provide medication abortions seems to have an underlying agenda–moral or financial–that has nothing to do with women’s health.

Restriction #2: In-Person Physician Encounter

Telemedicine is increasingly used to serve rural communities in particular.  Many people in rural areas are far from hospitals and other sources of medical care.  You can see in this map that there are large areas without critical access.

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To provide needed care in the Mountain West, St. Luke’s Health System has established a virtual intensive care unit, which monitors 69 critical care beds in 5 hospitals and provides critical care consultation in 5 emergency departments in Idaho.  Here is a video about it:

Critical care is being offered to people on the brink of death through telemedicine, but some states have seen fit to decide that medication abortions offered through telemedicine are dangerous.  Over the past year, this restriction has generated attention in Iowa, where Planned Parenthood has safely offered medication abortions through telemedicine to thousands of women since 2008.  In September 2013, the Iowa Board of Medicine, made up of political appointees, voted to ban telemedical abortions, in addition to imposing other restrictions and requirements.

Delaying access to abortion care narrows women’s options, as medication abortions are only considered safe through the first 9 weeks of pregnancy.  After 9 weeks, a surgical abortion becomes a woman’s only abortion option (see here for a comparison of surgical and medication abortions).  While there are risks and side effects from medication abortions, most of them are uncomfortable or annoying rather than dangerous.  According to the FDA, no deaths have been directly attributed to medication abortions.

As Jill June, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Heartland, said,

It’s evident that this ruling was not based on the health and safety of women in our state – it was based on politics. There was no medical evidence or information presented to the Board that questions the safety of our telemedicine delivery system. It’s apparent that the goal of this rule is to eliminate abortion in Iowa, and it has nothing to do with the safety of telemedicine. The reality is, this rule will only make it more challenging for a woman to receive the safe health care she needs.  Iowa women deserve to have access to the newest medical technologies and all of the heath care services they need, regardless of where they live.

A judge halted Iowa’s ban through a stay until the court case is settled.  The Iowa legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, was unable to pass a bill to instate the restriction through law; however, this restriction is in place in other states.

Restriction #3: The Original FDA Protocol

The Guttmacher Institute offers this chart comparing the original protocols for administering mifepristone pills established by the FDA, and the newer protocols adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) based on evidence that has emerged since the FDA’s original approval:

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Abortion opponents have argued that adhering to the FDA protocols protects women, even though the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a government agency as is the FDA, has published guidelines for mifepristone administration in their National Guidelines Clearinghouse.  The following guideline is level A evidence, the highest and most reliable evidence available:

Compared with the FDA-approved regimen, mifepristone-misoprostol regimens using 200 milligrams of mifepristone orally and 800 micrograms of misoprostol vaginally are associated with a decreased rate of continuing pregnancies, decreased time to expulsion, fewer side effects, improved complete abortion rates, and lower cost for women with pregnancies up to 63 days of gestation based on last menstrual period.

I have argued against non-FDA-approved use of Pitocin to induce labor electively.  However, there is no evidence base for the use of Pitocin for non-medically indicated deliveries.  As you can read in my previous posts (here and here), Pitocin is a high-alert medication with many dangerous side effects.  Its elective use has no known benefit other than convenience.  The new guidelines for mifepristone use, on the other hand, are based on evidence and involve giving a woman less medication rather than more.

That legislators would ignore a large, reliable body of scientific research does not inspire my confidence in their understanding of safety.  If they really care about the health and safety of women and babies, restricting off-label Pitocin use would be a much more effective technique.

It should be noted that while a law was passed in Arizona imposing this restriction and was upheld by a federal judge in Tuscon on April 1, 2014, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay on the legislation on April 2.  Thus, the only state implementing this restriction as of April 2014 is Texas.

If you view yourself as a human rather than a political pawn, you might want to say so.  If you value your freedom to rather than your freedom from, you might consider fighting for that freedom.  And if you are a woman in Texas who cares about her health, you may want to move.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) released a joint statement on laboring and birthing in water, Committee Opinion #594: Immersion in Water During Labor and Delivery.  You can read the whole opinion here.  While they concede that laboring in water reduces pain, reduces use of epidurals and other pharmaceutical pain relief, and shortens labor, they come down against birthing in water. Their arguments are a little odd.

First, they make no universal recommendations that water submersion be available to laboring women.  The benefits are obvious–there are no side effects from water as pain relief, women like it, and it shortens labors without increasing risk or pain (as Pitocin augmentation does when it is used to shorten labor).  As both epidurals and Pitocin augmentation are ubiquitous at births attended by obstetricians, even though both carry risks, why would they not recommend that water submersion be available to all women as an alternative?

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Their statement against birthing in water is based on what are called “case reports.”  These are generally considered the lowest form of scientific evidence–if you could even call them scientific.  A case report is essentially a statement that someone saw something happen, but with no scientific comparison or exploration of alternative explanations.  Thus, if a baby had a bad outcome after a water birth that could be attributed to the water birth, a case report may assume it is attributable to the water birth.  This is a bit like saying, “My Aunt Myrtle went out walking in a blue hat and she fell down, so wearing blue hats must make people fall down,” or “My friends didn’t vaccinate their kids and the kids have not died of whooping cough.”

Ultimately, the opinion concludes,

The safety and efficacy of immersion in water during the second stage of labor have not been established, and immersion in water during the second stage of labor has not been associated with maternal or fetal benefit. (emphasis mine)

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But immersion in water during birth has been associated with multiple benefits during the birth (not just labor).  These include:

I am not sure why these would not be considered evidence of benefit.

The committee opinion itself says,

[T]he only difference in maternal outcomes from immersion during the second stage was an improvement in satisfaction among those allocated to immersion in one trial.

Apparently, women’s satisfaction with their birth experience is not worthy of consideration as a benefit.

This dismissal of women’s experience is mirrored in other recommendations.  For instance, ACOG’s recommendation on management of labor states,

Patients should be counseled that walking during labor does not enhance or improve progress in labor nor is it harmful.

Why bother telling the patient anything if this is the case?  Why not “counsel” her to do whatever makes her feel most comfortable?

ACOG’s Practice Bulletin on labor induction makes no note of maternal pain or preferences, except in cases of fetal demise, where it indicates that “patient preference” may be a consideration.  The only mention of “discomfort” is in reference to membrane stripping, but it is not indicated that potential discomfort should be a consideration when deciding whether or not to do the procedure.

So who benefits if water birth is prohibited?  The AGOG/AAP opinion indicates a number of potential harms to the infant, including drownings, near drownings, and respiratory distress.  However, they also note that the Cochrane Review on water birth did not come to the same conclusion:

Morbidity and mortality, including respiratory complications, suggested in case series were not seen in the 2009 Cochrane synthesis of RCTs, which concluded that, “there is no evidence of increased adverse effects to the fetus/neonate or woman from laboring in water or water birth.”

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They suggest however, that the randomized control trials (RCTs) were not large enough to pick up on “rare but potentially serious outcomes.”  This is the same reasoning given by the the chief of obstetrics at Massachussetts General Hospital, Michael Greene, for ignoring the results of a large randomized control trial that showed the safety of planned vaginal birth for twins.  Basically, he said, he wanted to keep practicing the way he always had and saw no compelling reason to change.

It is frustrating to see physicians making bold statements against something women want when not only is there no scientific evidence to support their view, the most rigorous evidence that exists actually comes to the opposite conclusion.  Both doctors and midwives in the United Kingdom endorse water birth, stating that basic safety should be practiced and that the people attending the birth should be properly trained:

Both the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives support labouring in water for healthy women with uncomplicated pregnancies. The evidence to support underwater birth is less clear but complications are seemingly rare. If good practice guidelines are followed in relation to infection control, management of cord rupture and strict adherence to eligibility criteria, these complications should be further reduced.

The United Kingdom has better birth outcomes than the U.S.  Though water birth itself likely has nothing to do with that, it does seem like an American focus on a process that has, as ACOG and AAP acknowledge, no scientific evidence of harm, is misplaced.

This leads to the consideration of who does benefit from a policy of banning water birth.  Most doctors have not been trained in how to perform water births and may have never seen one.  Nancy Shute writes on NPR’s health news site,

[I]t’s hard not to get the sense that this also may be a bit of a battle for control over the birthing process.

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Barbara Harper, founder of Waterbirth International,  teaches all over the world. This is her official response to the ACOG/AAP opinion:

There are no bad outcomes, nothing that would lead ACOG to issue this statement at this time. Doctors see that women want options that are out of their comfort zone, educational scope and experience and it pushes the envelope for freedom of choice and human rights. It is a basic human right to birth without drugs or intervention or interference of any kind. If that can be integrated into a hospital setting, great. But, it still makes doctors nervous because their training demands that they ‘do’ something at a birth instead of sit by and knit or take the photos. This is why I have titled my new book, ‘Birth, Bath and Beyond.’ Waterbirth gives you the ability to watch birth happen, relax with it, witness the miracle – and it changes the way you approach all other births after you experience it. Waterbirth equates liability in the litigious world that we live in. Waterbirth challenges the conventional ‘security oriented/risk management’ approach to maternity care.  The science behind waterbirth, coupled with the experience of at least a quarter of a million women who have done it, will dictate policy and not the opinion of any organization, even ACOG and the AAP.

As a commenter on the NPR piece, Erin Shetler, says,

There are risks and benefits of every type of birth intervention, including water births. But you don’t see ACOG coming out with news releases about the risks of epidurals (increased C-section rate), vacuum extraction (cephalatoma in a newborn’s brain), induction (increased risk of uterine rupture and fetal distress), episiotomy (increased likelihood of third- or fourth- degree tearing) and other common practices because these are risks they feel comfortable taking. The risk of infection increases with every pelvic exam during labor, but that doesn’t stop most doctors from doing several. Some of the drugs used for induction are very commonly used “off-label,” meaning that their use is not approved by the FDA. Look up the facts. No matter what kind of birth you like or endorse, coming out against water births because they have a few risks while staying mum and/or endorsing other interventions is disingenuous at best.

It’s worth noting that there are doctors and hospitals that do support water births, so this committee opinion is not universal.

If ACOG wants to develop a committee opinion that is truly in the interests of women’s health and not the physician’s bottom line or comfort zone, they might issue strongly worded opinions against practices with no scientifically established benefits and well established harms, such as pregnancy bed rest.

Plus, women don’t like bed rest.  Perhaps that should be worthy of consideration as well.

 

Updates

Barbara Harper on “Why Pediatricians Fear Waterbirth.”  Her evidence-based review points out misinterpretations and misrepresentations of research in the ACOG/AAP statement.

American Association of Birth Centers (AABC) Position Statement on waterbirth.  AABC has a long record of conducting waterbirths safely.

Wisconsin has the dubious distinction of being one of three states (along with Minnesota and South Dakota) that allow civil commitment of pregnant women for mental health and substance abuse treatment (you can find your state’s policies here).  In an ironic twist, it is very hard for pregnant women to voluntarily enroll in appropriate substance abuse treatment–many programs will not accept pregnant women, and specialized programs are few and far between (and often have no room).  Only four states prohibit discrimination against pregnant women seeking treatment in publicly funded programs–none of them are states that allow civil commitment.  So when the state of Wisconsin forced 28 year old Alicia Beltran into substance abuse treatment under the “cocaine mom act”–even though she was not abusing any substances at the time–she was held for 78 days in a treatment center, received no medical care, and was forced to take a drug that helps people withdraw from their drug of abuse–even though she had already finished withdrawing from Percocet before entering treatment (verified by drug tests).  She was also not allowed to have a lawyer to represent her at her commitment hearing (she requested one), but the court appointed representation for her fetus.

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People in Wisconsin also took notice of the case of Marlise Munoz in Texas. Munoz’s body was kept artificially alive after she was declared brain dead (which is the clinical definition of dead) so that she could incubate her fetus against her previously stated wishes and the wishes of her family.  A judge finally ruled that a law stating that life support could not be withdrawn from a pregnant woman, regardless of her wishes, did not apply in Munoz’s case because Munoz was already dead.    Image

Understandably, some in Wisconsin are concerned that pregnant people are not being accorded the same human rights as other people.  As a result, three new bills are being introduced, the “Pregnancy Protection Package,” sponsored by Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison and Rep. Terese Berceau, D-Madison (as reported here):

  • Assembly Bill 860 ensures pregnant women who have allegedly used drugs have the right to an attorney before being detained.
  • Assembly Bill 861 requires a pregnant woman’s advanced medical directives to be respected, just like any other patient’s.
  • Assembly Joint Resolution 111, affirms that “pregnant women be afforded all the rights of non-pregnant people.”

Here is a part of ACOG’s Committee Opinion on substance abuse and pregnancy:

Seeking obstetric–gynecologic care should not expose a woman to criminal or civil penalties, such as incarceration, involuntary commitment, loss of custody of her children, or loss of housing. These approaches treat addiction as a moral failing. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing biological and behavioral disorder with genetic components. The disease of substance addiction is subject to medical and behavioral management in the same fashion as hypertension and diabetes. Substance abuse reporting during pregnancy may dissuade women from seeking prenatal care and may unjustly single out the most vulnerable, particularly women with low incomes and women of color. Although the type of drug may differ, individuals from all races and socioeconomic strata have similar rates of substance abuse and addiction.

Many people would love to have mental health or substance abuse treatment, but cannot get it.  In other cases, people who are a genuine danger to themselves or others cannot be committed to treatment involuntarily.  Pete Early’s book Crazy details his agonizing quest to get treatment for his young adult son, who was delusional and ultimately broke into someone’s home and was criminally prosecuted.  Early points out that not allowing family members or qualified medical professionals to mandate treatment for the severely mentally ill means that we populate our jails with people who are in desperate need of treatment.  They do not get better in jail, where one psychiatrist is generally responsible for hundreds of severely mentally ill prisoners.

The concern for receipt of mental health treatment for pregnant women generally has nothing to do with the health or well being of the woman.  In the case of Bei Bei Shuai, pregnant and depressed, Shuai’s suicide attempt led not to mental health treatment, but to 435 days in jail and a trial for murder (the baby was born alive by cesarean but died two days later).  It is also notable that fetal protection laws directed against pregnant women are unlikely to help the fetus either — as Beltran noted, she spend her entire 78 days in “treatment” with no prenatal care.  Inadequate prenatal care is a known risk factor for poor pregnancy outcomes for the baby as well as the woman.

Rather than criminalizing pregnant women for legal behavior or criminalizing health conditions only for pregnant women, perhaps we should make sure that all people have access to needed health care, including care for mental health and substance abuse.  And perhaps we should make sure pregnant women have at least as much right to consent and refusal for treatment as people who are actively hallucinating.  And perhaps we should recognize that if we are going to allow for anyone to have advance directives, it is not acceptable to say that pregnant women have no say over their own bodies if the state wants to use those bodies as incubators.

What does it say about our attitude toward the humanity of women that we have to generate laws that say that ordinary human rights extend to them whether they are pregnant or not?

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Cosmopolitan (really!) has published an amazing interview with Dr. Katharine Morrison, the physician who worked with the abortion provider Dr. Barnett Slepian, who was murdered by “pro life” activist James Kopp in 1998.  She subsequently took over the Buffalo Women’s Clinic where they practiced.  In the intervening years, she developed an interest in homebirth as a women’s rights issue and decided to open a birth center so that her clinic would truly offer comprehensive reproductive services in a woman-centered environment.  It is only the second birth center in the entire state of New York (the other is in Brooklyn).

Unlike many obstetricians who vociferously oppose homebirth, Morrison has actually witnessed homebirths.  And as has happened with other obstetricians who have taken the initiative to learn about homebirth midwives and attend homebirths, she underwent a conversion.  She says that she went to a meeting led by Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM) Eileen Stewart, who was giving up her homebirth practice because she couldn’t find a collaborating physician.  Morrison recalls,

It occurred to me that, although I had delivered 2,000 to 3,000 women, I had never actually seen a natural birth.

Some obstetricians insist that it is ridiculous to say that OBs are not familiar with natural childbirth.  They will have to take this up with Dr. Morrison.  In any case, she asked Stewart to take on a few clients and agreed to be the collaborating OB.  Here is her response to the experience:

It’s a different culture of birth. A woman isn’t subjected to anything she doesn’t want. She doesn’t need an IV [for drugs or fluids]. She can eat and move around. No one’s checking her every hour. She can go at her own pace, and even have a water birth. There’s no rush to cut the umbilical cord as there is at a hospital. And if labor is progressing slowly, no one’s pressuring the patient to have a C-section, as can happen at a hospital. All of these things were part of my routine in my previous practice. But when I saw this woman-centered care, I was hooked.

Although Morisson is opening a freestanding birth center, not a homebirth service, she observes the similar reactions of those opposed to abortion and those opposed to homebirth:

The same contempt that people have for women choosing to terminate a pregnancy and the person providing that care, I’ve seen for women who want to have natural births and for the women providing them. It’s this idea that these women are selfish and insufficiently caring about these babies.

Women generally care passionately about being good mothers and having babies who will have all of the resources they need to grow to be thriving adults.  How and when to bring a child into the world are two sides of the same coin.  Women’s autonomy in deciding where and how to give birth is just as important as autonomy in deciding whether to give birth at all.

Read the whole interview: “Meet the Doctor Who Opened a Natural Birthing Center in Her Abortion Clinic

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Controversies around breastfeeding surged once again last month with Social Science and Medicine‘s pre-release of Cynthia Colen and David Ramey’s article, “Is Breast Truly Best?  Estimating the Effects of Breastfeeding on Long-term Child Health and Wellbeing in the United States Using Sibling Comparisons.”*  That’s not a very snappy title, so the news sources that picked it up went with the pithier “Breastfeeding Benefits Overstated” (CNN Health) and “Is Breastfeeding Really Better” (New York Times) or with other much shorter versions of the article title.  The article looks at sibling pairs in which one child was breastfed and the other was not.  Statistical comparisons of the children at ages 4-14 on a host of factors showed that the breastfed sibling did not appear to have health, learning, or attachment advantages over the sibling who was never breastfed.

One of the problems with making any assessment of breastfeeding is that it has become a battlefield for Mommy Wars.  One side claims that breastfeeding will guarantee a gifted child who is never ill, and who will always remember to call his mother after graduating from an Ivy League school–plus it will give you an alternative to gas for your car!

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The other side retorts that most adults were formula fed and came out just fine, so there can’t possibly be any benefit to breastfeeding, plus it ties women down, shuts fathers out of parenting, and is kind of icky anyway.

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The more each side trumpets its point of view, the more entrenched each side becomes. Thus, while many news outlets represented the study’s findings as absolute truth, reporting “breastfeeding [is] no better than bottle feeding,”  Melissa Bartick, MD, who spearheaded the Ban the Bags campaign, referred to the Colen and Ramey study as “sensationalism.”

No one is helped when the main breastfeeding support organization in the U.S. states that a tenet of their philosophy is that “Mothering through breastfeeding is the most natural and effective way of understanding and satisfying the needs of the baby,” implying that mothers who don’t breastfeed can never be as attached to their babies and can never satisfy a baby’s needs the way breastfeeding mothers do.  And no one is helped when the United States is among the only countries in the world that has not implemented a single aspect of the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes because no one wants to stand up to the lobbying of a multi-billion dollar formula industry.  (Just so you know, there’s not much of an industry around breast milk production).

Groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, and health arms of the U.S. government promote the benefits of breastfeeding without much consideration of what benefits there might be in not breastfeeding.  The one-note message of these health groups tends to over-inflate breastfeeding’s benefits and to imply that mothers who breastfeed love their children more or are better mothers than those who do not.

The promotion of breastfeeding to individual mothers without equal or greater promotion of breastfeeding in the culture and structure of society is a recipe for guilt.  Colen and Ramey say,

The line between providing information about the health benefits of breastfeeding and stigmatizing mothers facing structured, valid, and often difficult trade-offs in the care and financial support of their children or in fulfilling their own human potential must be drawn sensitively.

This is a very important point.  In the United Arab Emirates, the belief in breastfeeding’s benefits is mirroring some of the U.S. body politic around pregnant women: legislation was introduced that would compel women to breastfeed.  To force one person to use her body for the benefit of another against her will is a human rights violation.  To pit mothers against their children in the name of “child rights” is unconscionable.  (Seriously, click on the link–it’s mind boggling).

This is the climate in which Colen and Ramey conducted their research.  It is perhaps not surprising that as sociologists, who generally abhor structural inequalities, they conclude that structural changes should take precedence over individual-level breastfeeding promotion:

[A] multifaceted approach will allow women who want to breastfeed to do so for as long as possible without promoting a cult of ‘total motherhood’ in which women’s identities are solely constructed in terms of providing the best possible opportunities for their children and the risks  associated with a failure to breastfeed are vastly overstated.

While I agree with the sentiment of their conclusion, I do think we need to further examine the research process that led to a finding that breastfeeding has no benefit that extends through middle childhood.

Here is a summary of their methods:

  • They used the data set from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79)
  • To determine if a child had been breastfed, they used two questions, both reported by the woman. One asked if the mother had ever breastfed the child (status); the other asked her to estimate how old the child was in weeks when she stopped breastfeeding (duration).
  • The full sample included 8,237 children.  The “discordant” sample (siblings groups with one child who had been breastfed and one who had not) included 1,773 children.
  • They measured the following outcomes: body mass index, obesity, asthma, hyperactivity, parental attachment, behavioral compliance, and 5 tests of intelligence or academic achievement.
  • Outcomes were only investigated for the children from age 4-14.

Let me say emphatically that all studies have flaws and that no one study can address all research concerns.  This is why we have a body of scientific literature, and no one study should absolutely convince us of anything, especially if it is not a large, well-constructed randomized control trial.  Colen and Ramey have made an important contribution to the literature, but it is also important that they and their promotors do not overstate their case.

Current health recommendations are that all children breastfeed exclusively for 6 months.  In the U.S., it is generally advised that children continue to breastfeed in addition to eating food for at least a year.  The World Health Organization recommends at least two years.

The Colen and Ramey study

  • had no measure of exclusive breastfeeding at all;
  • had no measure of “intensity”–those who reported breastfeeding could have been breastfeeding only once a day while their child consumed primarily formula;
  • found no significance for breastfeeding duration in weeks, but did not discuss longer periods of time that would mirror recommendations (for instance, children who breast fed for 6 months and for a year);
  • did not discuss the sample sizes for each week of duration (I am guessing that the sample size for each week decreased dramatically as the weeks wore on; it is difficult to find statistically significant differences when the sample size is small);
  • did not appear to control for a number of factors that could have been important, such as the financial status of the family at each child’s birth or the child’s place in the birth order.

Colen and Ramey also are not able to examine other crucial health measures, such as the impact on the woman herself (breastfeeding is thought to have heath benefits such as reducing the incidence of diabetes and some cancers) or the impact on the children past age 14 (breastfeeding is thought to have a protective effect against some diseases that emerge in adulthood, such as Crohn’s disease).

Perhaps most importantly, they did not look at what happened to children who never consumed any formula at all, but who were fed according to standard health guidelines for infant feeding.

Ultimately, Colen and Ramey measured what the breastfeeding literature typically calls “any breastfeeding,” meaning the child was fed any breastmilk at all even once.  It is of concern that they conclude (and the reporters report) that the benefits of breastfeeding do not extend into middle childhood, rather than that the benefits of any breastfeeding do not extend into middle childhood.  Though Colen and Ramey concede that there are benefits to breastfeeding for infants, I am not certain that there are any measurable benefits to having been fed a few drops of breastmilk on one occasion.

I agree with the conclusions of an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) review,

A history of breastfeeding is associated with a reduced risk of many diseases in infants and mothers from developed countries. Because almost all the data…were gathered from observational studies, one should not infer causality based on…findings. Also, there is a wide range of quality of the body of evidence across different health outcomes.  For future studies, clear subject selection criteria and definition of “exclusive breastfeeding,” reliable collection of feeding data, controlling for important confounders including child-specific factors, and blinded assessment of the outcome measures will help. Sibling analysis provides a method to control for hereditary and household factors that are important in certain outcomes. In addition, cluster randomized controlled studies on the effectiveness of various breastfeeding promotion interventions will provide further opportunity to investigate any disparity in health outcomes as a result of the intervention.

Colen and Ramey meet only the sibling analysis recommendation.  Ultimately, their article may have done nothing more than to fan the flames of the breastfeeding battles, sending each side further into their own trenches while doing nothing to promote structural changes that might support women’s desire to breastfeed.

*You need a subscription or access to an academic library to get a copy of the full article.

There is an interesting paradox in the arguments of some anti-homebirthers.  They argue both that homebirthing is an elitist practice driven by well-educated, wealthy feminists AND that these women do not know, understand, or have easy access to the “truth” about homebirth (because if they did, they would obviously come to the same conclusion as the anti-homebirthers).

Many of the women driving the rise in homebirth are the most capable of finding information on the risks and benefits of homebirth, and if they make a decision that goes against the anti-homebirthers’ beliefs, they certainly aren’t doing it because of a lack of information on risks.  A simple Google search on “home birth” pulls up many sites; some on the first page include a Wikipedia article that has a research review that indicates a higher rate of perinatal death in American homebirths, a Daily Beast story  called “Homebirth: Increasingly Popular, but Dangerous,” and the website Hurt by Homebirth.  It seems that rather than lacking access to the “truth,” some women simply have different interpretations of the evidence and/or different values than the anti-homebirth crowd.

There is, however, a different crowd of women who plan homebirths—or who have homebirths planned for them—who may or may not have accurate information about the risks of homebirth. If they do, it likely doesn’t matter.  Their choice is constrained by a subordination of their own autonomy to God, or in many cases, their husbands or their church leaders.

Some may have heard of the Quiverfull Movement and the Christian Patriarchy Movement.  The overlap between the two groups is substantial.  Those who are “Quiverfull” believe that they must gratefully accept as many children as God gives them, whenever He chooses to give them.  The Christian Patriarchy Movement believes in, well, patriarchy.  Women must always be under the authority of a man; generally this authority passes from father to husband.  The most well known Quiverfull family is the Duggar family of the TV show “19 Kids and Counting.” Kathryn Joyce has an excellent book on the movements, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement.  Two excellent blogs that discuss the ramifications of Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy are Love, Joy, Feminism, by Libby Anne, who grew up the oldest of 12 in a Quiverfull family; and No Longer Quivering, by Vickie Garrison, who had seven children before leaving the movement.

Because of the movements’ distrust of secular institutions, some in the movements eschew traditional medical care.  In addition, in part because they start families young and have so many children, many of these families are low income but do not believe in using government programs such as Medicaid.  Of course, many members of the movement go to doctors or licensed midwives anyway, and some even sign up for Medicaid.  But many don’t.  In many cases, it is the husband who makes the final decision about the healthcare of his pregnant wife and the circumstances of her labor and birth.  Sometimes these decisions are in response to the guidance of church leadership.

Amy Chasteen Miller, who conducted a study of unassisted childbirth published in Sociological Inquiry, points out that “women make choices about birth within a web of larger social influences.”  For educated, independent women, these choices may come from a feminist sensibility that leads them to reject a paternalistic and technological model of birth.  For other women, birth choices may be “driven by God.”  In some religious communities,

women see childbirth as fully ‘in God’s hands.’  For these women, seeking medical help for pregnancy and birth reflects a breach of faith and an unwillingness to fully trust ‘God’s will.’

In such circumstances, it is unlikely that women are familiar with the scientific literature regarding risks associated with homebirth, but it is also unlikely that knowing and understanding the risks would have any impact on their decision making–if they had any control over the decision.  Miller writes, “For some women, part of surrendering to God is also deferring to their husbands…”  One woman writes, “I asked [my husband] where we should have the baby.”  Another says, “[My husband] knew we needed to do this baby on our own without a professional birth attendant.”  In these families, Miller notes, husbands “played an active role in monitoring, directing, and evaluating the birth process.”

In her article “My Womb for His Purpose,” Kathryn Joyce tells the story of Carri Chmielewski, a self-described “Homeschooler, Homebirther, Homechurcher,” who had an unassisted childbirth after a complicated pregnancy and suffered an amniotic fluid embolism.  Her baby died.  According to Joyce,

Chmielewski’s husband, who critics charge has erased or hidden much of his wife’s past writing, described her survival as a miracle of God, who spared her even as He took their son.

Melissa, a former Quiverfull daughter who blogs at Permission to Live, was a submissive wife who was active in the web group of Above Rubies, a forum for Quiverfull/Christian Patriarchy mothers.  She says of her prenatal care in the U.S., “I had limited my checkups to only a handful to keep costs down.”  She also got only one of the two recommended shots for her rh-negative blood type and had her children at home.  She could have had comprehensive prenatal care, but her family did not believe in accepting government “welfare” and so went without any insurance at all:

I believed that welfare programs were unnecessary because if every woman just got married to one man and he supported her and her kids there would never be a need for welfare, I believed that Christian rights and privacy were being violated by the government on a regular basis…I remember being on a mommy chat board during my first and second pregnancies and someone started a thread on costs of prenatal care and childbirth. I mentioned that my uninsured home births had cost between six and seven thousand dollars each and felt proud that my costs were so low…
She never mentions anything about her knowledge of homebirth risks, only the “risk” of accepting government assistance.
Anonymous left the following comment at a Recovering Grace post on Quiverfull (ATI is the Advanced Training Institute, a Christian Patriarchy group):
I was an ATI mom for quite a few years and embraced the Quiverfull teachings. After a number of children we had a close call. A home birth and heavy hemorrhaging nearly claimed my life. I was ready to end the child bearing and focus on the children we had, but my husband didn’t agree. Within nine months I was pregnant again. We actually had insurance and I wanted to have the next birth in a hospital, but it was more important to my husband to have a home birth and “prove” his faith. I asked him, “What are you going to do if I bleed to death?” His answer amazed me. “Get a new one.”
This women knew first hand that there were risks to homebirth, ones she did not wish to accept.  Her religion, however, would not allow her to exercise her own autonomy.
According to Birth Junkie, “Born in Zion is a book by Christian ‘childbirth minister’ Carol Balizet, who ‘ministers’ to women during their home births” (I wanted to verify what Birth Junkie writes, but the book is now out of print and is currently selling for $200 per copy, so we’re going to take Birth Junkie’s word for it). She writes of Balizet:

[W]hatever Balizet’s ministry may be, it is certainly not midwifery….her teachings on childbirth are thoroughly unbiblical and even dangerous.  As if all this weren’t bad enough, Balizet believes that to receive any medical care whatsoever is a sin. It is yielding to the “world system” (167) and to the “arm of flesh” (84). Furthermore, taking any drug for any reason is sorcery according to Balizet (171). She refers to people who have never ingested drugs of any kind as “undefiled” and “virgins” (174)….Balizet believes that getting a Caesarean Section is a particularly abominable sin. All women who have had Caesareans have “the same spirit,” the “spirit of Caesar,” who is one and the same with “the Strong Man, the Satanic high prince over the organization and sphere of humanism” because they have “rendered their babies unto Caesar” rather than to God (48). In other words, women with Caesarean scars are idol-worshipers who are demon possessed.

Followers of such a philosophy are likely to be frightened into not seeking appropriate medical care–or bullied into not seeking it by church or family “authorities.”

Vyckie Garrison tells the harrowing story (long but fascinating if you want to read the whole thing) of her belief in her husband’s and God’s authority, and how it impacted her prenatal care and birth.  First she was betrayed by the conventional medical system.  A doctor told her a bone spur made vaginal birth impossible.  When she found out that wasn’t true:

‘Then why have I had three c-sections?’ I wanted to know. Well, it turns out that there really was no good reason–only that the first doctor had run out of patience so declared me to be ‘too small’ to give birth. And because of the first cesarean ~ I had automatically scheduled repeat c-sections for my next two babies.”

Her Christian OB offered severe limitations on VBAC and laughed at her wish for vaginal birth.  Having embraced the Quiverfull lifestyle, she decided to deliver with Judy Jones, an unlicensed midwife and devout Christian.  Because Vyckie had many complications in her pregnancy (for which she did not seek other care), Judy was at their house frequently.  Vyckie writes,

As ‘part of the family,’ Judy was around to witness the way that Warren dealt with the children…She spent a lot of time talking to me about the importance of upholding my husband’s authority…she always backed him up as ‘head of the home’….the wife should pray for the father of her children–but it’s essential that she never contradict him or do anything which might undermine his rightful authority as protector, provider–and priest in the home.

As the pregnancy progressed, Vyckie’s health worsened:

I was feeling particularly horrible…I told Judy that I really needed help–I really needed to go to the doctor. Judy drove to my house and did the usual check and assured me that–although I was still spilling sugar in my urine (+1,000)–I was okay and the baby was fine….Even though we really didn’t have the money for it, I insisted that I needed to go to the OB/GYN. ‘I can’t handle this anymore–I feel like I’m dying!’  I was laying on the couch and Judy got down on her knees beside me and did what she called a ‘diaphragmatic release,’ in which she put one hand under my lower back and her other hand on my lower abdomen and then waited patiently while the uterine muscles relaxed. It did calm me down, and while we waited, Judy told me a bible story…about the time when the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, and the Lord was providing for their every need…[b]ut the Israelites grew…greedy. ‘They had meat in abundance,’ Judy explained, ‘but they suffered leanness of the soul.’  Leanness of the soul … that’s what happens to those who don’t trust the Lord through their trials–those who seek “worldly” remedies and don’t have the faith to believe that God will never give us more than we can handle.

Eventually, after months of complications and a harrowing labor, she had a hospital transfer and an emergency cesarean.  Her recovery was lengthy, and her mother urged her not to have more children.  Vyckie writes,

But what about God? What did He want? His word made it very plain ~ He wanted to bless us and to use our family for His glory. Who was I to say, “No. Sorry, Lord–but it’s just too difficult for me”?

Now that she has left the movement, Vyckie offers the following reflections on her experience:

Because I had made the commitment to welcome every pregnancy as an unmitigated gift from the Lord, and because I also believed that accepting government assistance in the form of Medicaid was tantamount to trusting Caesar to provide for the health and wellbeing of my babies, I desperately sought an alternative to the expensive surgical deliveries.  I know now that it was absurd for a woman with my health issues and high-risk status to eschew all medical care and trust myself and my unborn baby to an unlicensed ‘lay midwife’ – but I was idealistically motivated, and it made perfect sense to me at the time. In fact, I was absolutely certain that it was God Himself who put the idea in my head and lead me to Judy Jones….Judy’s incompetent, negligent, and abusive pre- and post-natal care…seriously endangered my life and my baby’s life, and left me so physically, emotionally, and spiritually traumatized that I suffered severe PTSD for over a year and still sometimes have nightmares almost seventeen years later.

Rebekah Pearl Anast, the daughter of Christian Patriarchy couple Michael and Debi Pearl, married Gabe, a man who quit his job to study the Bible.  The family lived in a rural home outside Gallup, New Mexico, where their electricity has been turned off because they can’t afford to pay the bill.   Rebekah has 6 homebirths assisted only by Gabe.  She does seem to have enjoyed them (at least the first 4):
Now, I have had 4 “unassisted” homebirths. It did save us 20,000 dollars all told, and has been a thrilling and bonding experience for both my husband and I.
However, she has so subsumed her own desires to those of her husband that it is unclear whether she knows how to have her own feelings.  Of her relationship to God, her home, and her husband, she says (DH means Dear Husband),
[I]f your worship of God IN ANY WAY short-changes your husband or son, or makes them feel shut out, then IMO, it is not in spirit and in truth….Remember that your husband is your lord….It really helped me to remind myself ‘this kitchen belongs to DH, the food belongs to DH, the meal is all about DH, and both me and our daughter are helpers for DH…’
Rebekah’s entire life is dictated by the whims and desires of her husband, so whatever knowledge she has of the risks of unassisted childbirth are likely to be irrelevant.
There definitely appears to be a group of women homebirthing under questionable circumstances regarding their knowledge and autonomy–but it isn’t privileged feminists beholden to misinformation campaigns of hippie websites.
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