A home water birth video, which captures the beautiful process of giving natural birth with the help of midwives and the husband, has been viewed 9.1 million times on Facebook since Aug. 31. In the video, a mother struggles and gathers all her strength to contract, inhale, exhale, and pass on her strength to the newborn baby. The power of the video lies in its affirmation of women’s strength, challenge to the media misrepresentation of childbirth, profoundness of human bonding, and quest for natural birth and human activities in a society largely defined by technology and progress.
However, home birth isn’t always in a positive light in public. A recent article in the New York Times, “Why Is American Home Birth So Dangerous?” written by Amy Tuteur, reflects many people’s attitudes towards this issue. The article explicitly states that the assumption is “childbirth is inherently dangerous,” so mothers need to go to the hospital to avoid dangerous incidents. Tracing back to ancient times, without modern medicines, mothers give birth to child naturally. Generations after generations we are here today.
Natural childbirth is also happening today, and women in different cultural backgrounds possess the ability to give natural birth. In my hometown Shandong back in China, a decent number of families choose home birth with the help of midwives, and family members attend the birth as an important and ritual ceremony. My Tibetan friends said their cultural tradition is family members all getting together, circling around the mother, and watching the birth process together. Many people I know never consider going to hospital for childbirth and would only go when any complication occurs.
The article also over-emphasizes the power of modern medicine and technology to “overcome” human powerlessness; yet, we choose to ignore their drawbacks when we are blinded by our obsession with modernity. With the prevalence of modern technology and medicine in hospital childbirth, the maternal death rate actually increases. Statistically speaking, in the U.S. maternal death rate in 1987 was 6.6 deaths per 100,000 live births. Then in 2000, the maternal death rate increased to be between 12 and 15 (Health Resources and Services Administration). Even with the acknowledgement of different other factors such as social stratification, the doubling of the maternal death rate calls medical intervention into question.
More significantly, medicalization transforms people’s attitudes towards the process of giving birth, which gradually becomes similar to inhumane mass reproduction. The majority of women share similar painful experience of giving birth in the hospital, both physically and mentally. They are instructed to lie on the hospital bed, deprived of food and drink, laboring without caring accompanies, being totally powerless and even kept ignorant in the whole process, and losing confidence in their bodies and power. Every procedure in the hospital happens step by step, without much attention to human caring and intimacy. This maternal care circle has been repeating over and over again, perpetuating women’s powerlessness in childbirth and devaluing women’s dignity of being a powerful mother and human being.
This inhuman hospital birth represents just the tip of the iceberg of the inhuman American health care system. Hospitalization lacks elements of caring, something especially valuable for people in painful physical condition and vulnerable mental state. Especially in an individualistic society where people are used to taking care of themselves independently, the basic needs of being with other human beings are often depreciated. Yet, deep down we are all human beings and share similarities. The deep and profound connections between people could potentially heal the trauma and the sufferings. This is the power of being with.
It took me years to realize this power of being with and how that would impact on human society. During my past three years of engaging in feminist and LGBT activism in China, I found that the most empowering way is actually listening to people’s stories and building deep connections, as if we had gone through all the unbearable sufferings together. I value this empathy largely because of my cultural background. In the Chinese collective culture, people are more interdependent: together we experience a wide range of human emotions, build deep connections, and share struggles and happiness.
The element of caring could complement medical practices, giving people better experience in the hospital and confident in themselves. Incorporating the midwifery model into the hospital setting would give mothers more personal care and companions. This model works successfully in many countries, such as China. I was born in a hospital with the help of midwives. According to my parents, they knew the midwives very well and totally trusted them. They wanted to give birth in the hospital due to possible complications, so doctors were there in case of emergency. The process of a natural childbirth makes my mother believe in her strength.
This model combines midwifery care and medical care in a hospital setting, and could be operated in a larger scale. However, the stigma about midwifery is embedded in the cultural conversation, as people believe in the authoritative hospital. Besides, the capitalistic nature of health insurance is resistant to midwifery model. As the insurance industry is highly profit- oriented, the providers only present to the public options that they can gain profits, such as the hospital birth with medications. This circle continues to influence people’s attitudes towards midwifery as a cheaper option for less privileged people. Without changing the cultural narrative of health care, the public would not get access to midwifery as an option for childbirth, and the public would not voice their needs for more intimacy and caring.
Wandi Che is a first-year.
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