Guest post by Morgan A. McLaughlin McFarland
When hearing the news that I had my last baby at home and am planning to have this one at home as well, the first response from most people is, “You’re so brave.”
This has to be one of the most irritating things that people say to homebirthers. The implication is that birth is dangerous and that we are willing to take on a tremendous risk to do it anywhere but a hospital.
It negates the research and planning that we’ve done to come to this decision. It makes the choice about balls, not brains. After all, homebirth is “dangerous.” Hospital birth is “safe.” Therefore, it must be bravado alone that would lead a woman to choosing such an option. Right?
In 2003, over 20% of women had their labors induced, with a rate closer to 40% in many hospitals, while that rate should not exceed 10% (and has remained at 10% in most industrialized nations).
Inductions are approximately 5 times more likely among planned hospital births than planned homebirths. An 1999 American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology “Green Journal” review of 7000 inductions found that 3 out of 4 of the inductions were not medically necessary.
Inductions are performed unnecessarily for estimated size of the baby (too large or too small), going past the estimated due date, amniotic fluid levels that are low but not critically low (correctable in nearly all cases by rehydration of the mother), rupture of membranes without immediate start of labor, the mother being dilated/effaced but not in active labor, or scheduling reasons on the part of the mother or care provider.
Approximately 40-50% of inductions fail (depending on the induction method used and the mother’s Bishop score), and most failed inductions end in cesarean section. Inductions increase labor pain and length, and create, among other problems, an increased risk of fetal distress, uterine rupture, and cesarean section.
But homebirth is “dangerous.” Hospital birth is “safe.”
Over 30% of women in the US have cesarean sections, while overwhelming research has led the World Health Organization to set an ideal standard rate of cesarean sections at 10-12%, with 15% being the rate where more harm is being done instead of good. Cesareans are performed at a similar rate across all risk groups, low to high. The cesarean rate for planned births at home or in an independent birthing center is approximately 4%.
Cesarean sections increase the likelihood of maternal death by as much as 4 times, and have other immediate and long-term heath risks for mothers that include, but are not limited to, infection, bowel or bladder perforation, hysterectomy, future infertility, and increased risk of uterine rupture for future pregnancies.
Risks for the baby include respiratory distress, fetal injury, prematurity (if result of scheduled section or failed induction), and breastfeeding difficulties.
Four of the greatest causes for the increase in cesarean section are overuse of interventions during labor, concern for malpractice/liability on the part of care providers, failed labor inductions, and “failure to progress” (labor not progressing fast enough or regularly enough for care providers).
But homebirth is “dangerous” and hospital birth is “safe.”
The ACOG and AMA have both come out against homebirthing, calling it a dangerous trend and referring to it as a “fashionable, trendy, [...] the latest cause célèbre,” and they paint a horrible picture of complications arising in low-risk pregnancies with no warning that cannot be handled anywhere but the hospital.
Despite that, the most thorough study ever done on homebirth safety, Kenneth C Johnson and Betty-Anne Daviss’s Outcomes of planned home births with certified professional midwives: large prospective study in North America, BMJ 2005;330:1416 (18 June), found that the outcomes of planned homebirths for low risk mothers were the same as the outcomes of planned hospital births for low risk mothers, with a significantly lower incident of interventions in the homebirth group.
The Lewis Mehl Study of home and hospital births, which matched couples in each group for age, parity, education, race, and pregnancy/birth risk factors, found the hospital group had 9 times the rate of episiotomies and tearing, 3 times the cesarean rate, 6 times the fetal distress, 2 times the use of oxytocin for induction/augmentation, 9 times the use of analgesia/anesthesia, 5 times the rate of maternal blood pressure increase, 3 times the rate of maternal hemorrhage, 4 times the rate of infection, 20 times the rate of forceps use, and 30 times teh rate of birth injuries (including skull fractures and nerve damage).
Breastfeeding success rates are higher and postpartum depression rates are lower for planned homebirths.
But homebirth is “dangerous” and hospital birth is “safe.”
The United States spends more per pregnancy/birth than any other country, the vast majority of women in the US give birth in hospitals, and yet the US’s maternal death rate is the worst among 28 industrialized nations and the neonatal mortality rate is the second worst.
The Netherlands, where 36% of babies are born at home, has lower maternal and neonatal mortality rates than the US. Denmark, where all women have access to the option for a safe and legal home birth, has one of the lowest maternal and neonatal mortality rates.
But homebirth is “dangerous,” hospital birth is “safe,” and Brutus is an honorable man.
I didn’t choose a homebirth because I am brave. Bravery has little to do with it. If anything, I believe women who choose to give birth in US hospitals are the brave ones, because knowing what I know about our technocratic obstetrical system, I can’t imagine voluntarily choosing an obstetrician and a hospital for anything but absolute medical necessity.
My decision to homebirth wasn’t made in a void, but based upon years of research. I wonder how much research the average woman puts into her hospital birth?
Considering how many times I’ve heard someone say “I’m glad I was in the hospital because…” and then given as her reason a non-emergent situation (such as fetal size or nuchal cords), I’d say not that much.
Call me stubborn, because I wasn’t willing to accept out of hand the culturally held belief that hospitals are safer.
Call me an idealist, because I believe that birth can be a positive, safe, and empowering experience for child and mother.
Call me a nonconformist, because I choose to birth at home in defiance of a powerful technocratic system.
Call me outspoken, because I can’t keep my mouth shut when I hear about yet another iatrogenic birth calamity.
Call me a “birth nazi,” because I believe it’s the right and responsibility of every woman to educate herself about birth and take ownership of her birth experience.
But brave? Don’t call me brave. “Brave” has nothing to do with it.
Morgan is a freelance writer and co-director of North Metro Birth & Breastfeeding Coalition. Email Morgan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Read Morgan’s follow up article, “Birth Safety as a Binary Condition.”