‘Natural’ Childbirth: Taking Motherhood from the New Age Back to the Dark Age

REUTERS/Nacho Doce

There’s a reason why almost every fairytale from around the world for centuries has begun with a beloved wife dying in childbirth and the arrival of an evil stepmother.

This isn’t a curious coincidence or a lack of imagination on the part of storytellers, this was just real life for millions of people for millennia.

Natural childbirth is a dangerous business – for mothers and babies. Indeed, childbirth was one of the biggest killers of women until the 20th century. The labour process wasn’t too safe for babies either, with high numbers of infant deaths the norm until relatively recently.

And in many developing countries today, hundreds of thousands of mothers and babies still die needlessly every year thanks to “natural” childbirth and a lack of medical intervention.

Yet this week we learned that some medical professionals here in First World Britain are on a mission to return us to the Dark Ages, encouraging women to have “natural” births at all costs – even when that cost is the death of an innocent baby or its mother.

An inquiry into the deaths of mothers and babies at the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay Foundation trust found that 1 mother and 11 babies died as a result of a “lethal mix” of failings, amid “seriously dysfunctional” relations between staff.

The trust’s maternity services became strongly influenced by a group of dominant midwives – who dubbed themselves the “Musketeers” – whose “over-zealous” pursuit of natural childbirth “at any cost” contributed to a string of deaths. They failed to call doctors when they were needed, babies and mothers were put at risk, and then they colluded to cover up their mistakes.

The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has since announced an immediate review of ALL maternity services in England amid fears that an ideological push for natural childbirth among midwives may be putting children at risk elsewhere.

But why would any full trained medical professional – least of all a midwife, who knows the full risks of childbirth – think that an ideological commitment to one particular type of birth was more important than the lives of babies or the safety of mothers?

It’s beyond comprehension. And yet that is precisely what happened, and innocent victims died as a result.

This may be the most extreme and sinister example of the New Age demands for more natural birth and less medical intervention, but it is far from being the only one.

This is not just New Age babble over decaff soya lattes in the artisan bakeries of Islington – it’s very real, it’s very dangerous and it’s costing innocent lives.

There is now a growing and alarmingly respectable movement which is increasingly mistrustful of medical advances in the birthing process.

Support for that movement includes many otherwise well-intentioned midwives, the growing number of professional doulas (who support women during labour) and the likes of the National Childbirth Trust, which provides ante-natal classes.

There are many in this field who want childbirth returned to women – to the mother and the (invariably female) midwife, cutting the highly skilled (usually male) hospital consultants out of the process.

Now, I’m all in favour of women giving birth naturally whenever they can, by which (for the uninitiated) I mean vaginal birth, without any medical or surgical intervention. Indeed, I can’t imagine there are many sane people who would endorse any unnecessary intervention in that process.

And that’s the key, isn’t it: whether it is necessary or not?

While I’m sure there are cases of mothers-to-be who are “too posh to push” and prefer to have an early planned caesarean section, in the overwhelming majority of cases, women have C-sections because they NEED them to ensure their own safety and that of their child – not because a surgeon just happened to be at a loose end and fancied practising his blanket stitch on their bikini line.

Yet many unsuspecting pregnant women are now inculcated with the mantra that “natural is good” and “medical is bad”, as if the last century of medical advances, from penicillin to surgery, never even happened.

And that antipathy to medical intervention doesn’t just mean a caesarean section, it also stretches as far as pain relief.

Instead of encouraging women to give birth in hospital maternity units, where they are just minutes from life-saving equipment and an operating theatre if they need it, mothers-to-be are now often advised to “enjoy” their “birthing experience” in the comfort of their own home, often miles from any medical expertise.

Crucial to this “birthing experience” is the requirement that women do not take any proper pain relief. Epidurals are, they are told, totally unnecessary and possibly even dangerous for the baby. Despite decades of evidence to the contrary.

As part of the whole anti-medical/pro-natural ethos, thousands of otherwise perfectly sensible women are being cajoled, pressured and even bullied into denying themselves proper pain relief during labour in a misguided belief that an epidural will deny them the full experience of child birth.

Now imagine suggesting that someone should have open heart surgery without a general anaesthetic and see how stupid that sounds. Exactly.

This might all sound silly – and when you add in the home birthing pools, the scented candles and the soothing whale music, it probably is – but this is just as sinister (if, thankfully, not as deadly) as what the Musketeer midwives of Morecambe were doing.

Those midwives wanted women to take the risk of something going horribly wrong because they think it’s what Mother Nature intended.

But “what Mother Nature intended” often leaves mothers and babies dying needlessly when the medical help that could save them is ignored.

After decades of medical advances, we may now see those age-old fairytales being rewritten as real-life horror stories.