(Janet Fraser, owner of JoyousBirth.info, recently reportedly labored for five days before delivering either a stillborn baby or a baby that died at the birth [facts haven’t been clear yet]. Janet was having an unassisted birth, aka “freebirth.” She has long been a proponent of natural and homebirth as well as a biting critic of hospital, physicians and nurses. Having had a cesarean for her first birth, she is especially venomous regarding cesareans. Reading through her site and the forums, you can see the disdain for midwives, too, making it seem a magnetic draw for those that want to eliminate all interventions/technology from their birthing experience.
Janet and I have had numerous discussions regarding birthrape and birth abuse. I have my “Checking Your Own Dilation” article on her site; I hadn’t realized quite how deep the UC fervor had gone since I hadn’t read the site in awhile.
Here, then, is an open letter to Janet regarding her choice to UC.)
While you were still in labor, I read the piece the reporter was doing on you. Having had some emotional and cognitive shifts regarding my support for UCs, I squirmed a little in my chair and sighed reading things were going slow and you said, “I could do this for days. My daughter's birth was 50-something hours. You just do it — it's just birth, a normal physiological process." Sadly, you have learned it wasn’t “just birth,” but it was also the normal physiological process of death. Very sad.
I know this must be a very difficult time for you and I am sorry, but I feel compelled to talk with you anyway, perhaps touching you in sore and raw places, but knowing you, you would expect that from me – and even welcome it.
You’ve said, “How do we organise a revolution without offending anyone?” and “If I’m offended by something I look to myself first to see why I’m responding that way. Let’s take responsibility for our own actions.”
It is in these words that I feel I can speak freely to you.
How do you feel? Are you healing? Have you had time to reflect on your choices and your actions and see if you might have done things differently? I (and I am sure many others) look forward to hearing your thoughts on homebirth, UCs and even midwives after your experience. Have you changed your mind?
In your essays, you have talked about the pain (emotionally and physically) of hospital births, cesareans in particular. I’ve read through the boards and have listened as woman after woman rails against her birth experience, each one more horrifying than the last.
Yet, playing armchair quarterback, many of the stories can be explained, not excused, but explained as to why the births unfolded the way they did. As contrary as it might seem, doctors do not hate women (as a whole). I agree some are horrible; I have seen them, but the majority do care and want women and babies to be safe during the labor and birth. Sure, their orientation is different, they are surgeons and do cut more than they should, but women have to take some responsibility for that because so many sue doctors for not doing a cesarean soon enough. If women sued doctors for doing cesareans, it might be a different story, but when the birth story is told in front of a jury, the doctor did do what was right, protecting the mother and baby, even if the mother was traumatized by the experience. In our culture, we expect perfection and when we don’t get it, someone is to blame. History blames it on the doctor.
But, you epitomize what UCers say: I will take the responsibility on myself. If my baby dies, I am the only one to blame. How does this feel? Is the weight heavier than you expected? Will you be able to eloquently convey what the responsibility actually feels like when it happens? This isn’t to say women should go to OBs so they can blame someone... not at all... but to bring close to home what it means to accept the blow of a child’s death in your heart.
So, if going to an OB is traumatizing and the pain lingers long past the delivery, what are women to do? Is there even the option of going to a midwife where she lives? Would you now consider a midwife? Do you now believe there is a point where a long labor might be too long? Diverse questions that all need to be answered by each individual woman.
Reading the posts on your site, I read with interest, the disdain women had for midwives as well as the doctors. One thread in particular highlighted a midwife releasing the woman from care for non-compliance and the midwife’s being unable to satisfy the woman’s requests for a totally hands-off birth. No understanding of the midwife’s position was expressed, only derision and hatred for her actions. Fairness doesn’t exist.
I also found other things on the site that were equally disturbing. Groups of women with no or very little midwifery or medical knowledge were giving advice (not just information, but actual advice) that could lead to women losing their lives or losing the lives of their babies. Telling women to lie to their providers, skip appointments, fire the midwife, “do what your body tells you to do,” and other equally sad threads were easy to find.
Midwives are hired to be the lifeguard at births. How is she supposed to be that guardian if she isn’t permitted to do even the most basic procedures such as listening to fetal heart tones or be in the room during the labor and birth? Do you believe that a midwife at your labor might have saved your baby’s life? Was the risk of an “interfering” (by listening to heart tones) midwife worth the damage that was caused by losing your baby? Is there a tipping point where having a midwife, even if she is so intrusive as to listen to the baby throughout labor, becomes preferable to a dead baby?
I’m confused why UCers ever go to the hospital. If the body is perfect, why not stay home until the body completes its task, even if that task is a mother and baby dying? What drove you to the hospital? Did some self-preservation kick in? If the body is so perfect, how do UCers explain placenta accreta, placenta previa, PIH, eclampsia, miscarriage... any illness for that matter... a cold, the flu, cancer? Do UCers forego treatment for all illnesses/imperfections, relying on the body’s “perfection” to heal it? If birth is not like illness, is a normal function of the body, why do mothers and babies die at all? What if there is a heart defect that can be repaired with surgery, do UCers still believe in the body’s ability to heal itself? That the baby has the power to create a whole heart?
I also believe birth is normal - to a point. I believe we work well without help... for awhile, but eventually some assistance can be beneficial. Bodies are not perfect. Birth is not perfect. Birth is not as safe as life gets. Birth can be precarious, as you have learned first-hand.
I do not say these things to be a scare-monger, a “med-wife” among the homebirth midwives. Those that know me, have utilized my care, know I am judicious in my interventions on the norm. I have skills I rarely use, but am damn glad I have those skills. I have skills I use all the time, insist on using and if the potential client asks me not to, I will not accept her as a client. I will not be responsible for her child’s death as I sat by not listening. I am being hired for a reason. I sit quietly unless the labor needs help or the woman asks for help. If labor slips out of the realm of norm, I am there to gently nudge it back in so the homebirth desire can continue. If it steps even further outside and safety becomes an issue, I do not hesitate to move into the hospital. My very low cesarean rate (less than 5%) and my very low transfer rate (less than 10%) speaks for itself as does my intervention rate. Most midwives have very similar beliefs and numbers.
After I read that your baby died, I wanted to see what your forums were saying about it. Nothing. Apparently some serious editing and back-room talking is happening somewhere. Note: Just because it isn’t being talked about publicly doesn’t mean it isn’t noticed. Believe me, people are watching – and judging – and if you don’t talk about it, then UCers will continue in the beliefs that birth is perfect when unhindered. It isn’t always true, especially when the birth simultaneously brings a death.
I am so sorry for your loss, Janet. I cannot imagine the pain you must be experiencing. I feel so sad for you. But, I also pray this time brings some reflection about your UC beliefs and a re-consideration about what constitutes a safe birth. I look forward to hearing the evolution of your grief and watch as you heal from an experience where complete healing is never possible. You are a public personality who is very vocal in your beliefs. If this happened to me, I would expect you to say very similar words in just as public a way. Both of us express ourselves publicly and vocally. Your future words are eagerly anticipated. And know that my heart goes out to you.