As a mom and a proponent of expert-assisted natural childbirth, I can, in theory, understand the appeal of unassisted childbirth or “freebirthing,” an increasingly popular trend that involves laboring at home without the help of a doctor or midwife. If all other things were equal, the idea of laboring peacefully at home with no interference sounds and much more pleasant than giving birth in a room full of machines and medical equipment. However, unassisted childbirth isn’t all sunshine. The fact is that the practice of unassisted childbirth is incredibly dangerous to both mothers and babies, and it can and does lead to death.
The philosophy behind unassisted childbirth, promoted primarily by author-activists Laura Shanley and Janet Fraser, is that childbirth is a natural function of the human body and is not inherently dangerous. They claim that doctors and midwives are inherently abusive to women because they question the divine power of the female body. They also believe that hospital birth and expert-assisted home birth are more dangerous than unassisted childbirth. Janet Fraser goes so far as to refer to assisted childbirth as “birthrape” and considers women who deliver in hospitals to be victims of sexual assault.
One doesn’t have to go far to see the danger in unassisted childbirth, because its two leading proponents have their own examples to show. Janet Fraser gave birth in 2009 to a baby girl who died shortly after birth because of cord entanglement, a common complication that could have easily been addressed if a professional attendant were present. In her book “Unassisted Childbirth,” Laura Shanley describes the birth and subsequent death of her own son, and, although Shanley claims that he would have died even had he been born with the aid of a doctor or midwife, there is no way of knowing whether that’s true.
The statistics are grim for moms who choose to deliver at home without an expert’s help. There haven’t been many studies about unassisted childbirth, but one CDC investigation looked at the rates of death and complication among women in a religious group in Indiana that practiced unassisted childbirth. Babies born to these moms had three times the death rate of babies born in hospitals, and the mothers were twice as likely as average to die during or immediately after childbirth. Even more alarmingly, the Centers for Disease Control believes that the actual rate of death among freebirthing moms and babies may have been even higher than those statistics reflect.
I did a bit of my own research by reading online forums where women were discussing unassisted childbirth, and what I found was in no way reassuring. While there were stories of women having the empowering, magical unassisted childbirth experience they wanted, there were others with much more disturbing outcomes. One mom gave birth to a four-pound premie at home; the baby died five days later. Another nearly bled to death before her husband called 911 and had her rushed to the hospital. Several women gave birth to babies who never drew a single breath. In all these cases, members of the forums reassured each other that the complications were unavoidable and would have occurred in hospitals.
As romantic and beautiful as unassisted childbirth may sound (particularly to women who have never had a complication arise from labor), the choice to give birth without the help of a doctor or midwife is a very, very dangerous one. While some mothers and babies are lucky enough to survive the ordeal without lasting problems, the risk of losing a mother or baby (or both) from unassisted birth is much higher than average. If you’re considering having an unassisted home birth, please speak to a qualified physician or nurse-midwife about your feelings and ideas for doing so. If you crave a low-intervention birth in a home-like environment, an expert care provider can help enable this safely and effectively in a hospital, birthing center, or home. There is no reason to risk your safety or your child’s safety unnecessarily.