By Gargi Padki
“Why did I not know that birth is the pinnacle where women discover the courage to become mothers?” -Anita Diamant, The Red Tent
There are many factors at play in the United States today that prevent women from experiencing the power of natural birth. One in three women in the US gave birth by cesarean delivery in 2011, a 60% increase since 1996, reports The American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Caesarians have become overused in the United States without evidence that it benefits the mother or the infant. Midwives, who are often discredited in the US, hope to combat this and other troubling birthing practices that have developed in our country.
Midwives have historically been instrumental in helping women give birth. For centuries, they’ve coached women through the emotional process of labor and delivery. However, there has been a slow and steady push in America since the 1850s to remove midwives from the medical profession. Western medicine treats pregnant women as they would any other sick person. It scares them into taking drugs to numb the pain that would otherwise serve as a barometer for labor.
Witches, Midwives, & Nurses by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English outlines the expulsion of midwives from Western medicine, which began as early as the 14th century in the form of witch-hunts.
The hunting of midwives as witches began because midwives used empirical evidence to heal instead of Church doctrine. Additionally, midwives would “surrender to their sense”, or gain knowledge through experience, which was a betrayal to religious doctrine. Midwives were also the pinnacle of sexual liberation for women. They helped women have sex without getting pregnant and provided them with safe abortions. The Church supported rumors that midwives had sex with the devil during their “initiation” into witchcraft, hoping to add further negative stigma to their sexual health advice.
Witch-hunters believed that “no one [did] more harm to the Catholic Church than midwives”. When a woman was accused of being a witch, she was hunted by a trifecta of power comprised of the Church, the State, and the medical profession in an attempt to prevent her from independently healing peasant populations. “The witch hunts were well organized campaigns, initiated, financed, and executed by the Church and the State,” write Ehrenreich and English. Women were burned at the stake, a public display of violence that made an example of them to discourage others from entering into midwifery.
The witch-hunts in Europe were “a calculated ruling class campaign of terrorization” in order to assert power and control over women’s bodies. Persecution as a result of fear of midwives did not succeed in killing all midwives, but it did categorize midwives as superstitious and malevolent.
In the United States in the 1850s, women were kept out of the medical field because women’s health movements were strongly associated with feminist movements. Medical schools also banned women from entry, and modern nursing was invented to give women a “suitable” place in hospitals. As the medical field became more masculine, so did obstetrics and gynecology. Starting in the early 1900s, childbirth in hospitals became the norm. Today, more American babies are born in hospitals than in any other developed country.
In “The Business of Being Born”, 2008 documentary about childbirth in the United States, a midwife explains the process of medical interventions that occur in hospitals to accelerate the labor and delivery process (and it often ends in Caesarian section). The process begins with an injection of Pitocin, or oxytocin, a hormone that dilates the cervix. When Pitocin is administered, the number and intensity of contractions increases, causing the mother pain and shocking the baby. When the mother can no longer bear the pain of the Pitocin-induced labor contractions, she is prescribed an epidural to slow down contractions. As these labor pains subside, the process of delivery is delayed, and the dosage of Pitocin is increased again. As doctors continue to prescribe her Pitocin and increase her pain medicine, the fetus goes into distress. The mother is then told that a Caesarian section is her only option for a safe birth.
But the acceleration of the birthing process is dangerous. “These interventions and restrictions make labor and birth more difficult for women by increasing stress, disrupting the hormonal orchestration of labor, and interfering with the natural, physiologic process of labor and birth,” writes Dr. Judith A. Lothian in her article “Safe, Healthy Birth: What Everyone Woman Needs to Know”. These interventions have led to the alarming cesarean rate in the United States. In a study conducted by Childbirth Connection, statistics showed that the Cesarean rate in the United States leveled off at 32.8% in 2010 and 2011 after increasing for over a decade. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization suggests that 5-10% is the optimal rate for women and babies.
In the United States, birth has become another addition to our culture of spectacles. Women are socialized to be fearful of midwives and weary of naturally delivering their children. As women, we should acknowledge the power of our bodies to have natural deliveries instead of fearing them. Blind acceptance of the norm of a hospital birth facilitated by drugs is unnecessary when natural births facilitated by midwives are a viable option. This choice, when possible, hands the control over childbirth back to women who have been specializing in labor and delivery for generations.
For further reading on midwifery, check out Witches, Midwives, & Nurses: A History of Women Healers by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English (1973: Feminist Press).