Mothers-to-Be Saying No to Modern Medicine

Despite controversy, a growing number of women choose to give birth at home.

December 9, 2008, 10:49 AM

Dec. 10, 2008— -- Modern medicine means not having to go through childbirth alone. But that's what a small and growing number of women are choosing to do.

Back in the 1800s, giving birth at home, sometimes with the assistance of a midwife, was about the only option. But doing the same today generates both well-wishers and critics.

"The majority of babies throughout history have been born unassisted, and I felt this is what birth is supposed to be," said Laura Shanley, who has had five babies at home that she chronicles in her book,"Unassisted Childbirth."

"When you're told that this is ...[a] dangerous process and everyone around you is alert and expecting the worst, it's really Murphy's Law," she said.

Does Home Birth Make Sense?

The American Medical Association isn't taking any chances. To guard against accidents, and maybe to slow the trickle of rising home births, the AMA issued a resolution in June, saying that "the safest setting for labor and delivery is a hospital."

That's both obvious and sound advice according to Dr. Helain Landy, a professor and chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C.

"Having a baby in and of itself, can be a very dangerous situation, whether you deliver at home or in the hospital," she said. "But delivering at home, where one does not have all the ancillary support to be able to save the woman or save the baby, in my mind, just doesn't make a lot of sense."

For actress and former talk show host Ricki Lake, having a baby at home made perfect sense. Lake had her first child in a hospital but decided to have her second child at home with the aid of a midwife, filmed for her documentary "The Business of Being Born."

"I'm not anti-hospital, but more can go wrong in a hospital setting. You're on an assembly line, you're given one drug which leads to another drug, which leads to another drug," Lake said.

Although many women look forward to receiving drugs to subdue discomfort during labor, Lake said the pain of childbirth quickly slips from memory.

"It's very typical for any woman who's having a drug-free birth to say, you know, to hit a wall and to ... scream obscenities, but you forget the second you see that baby, you totally forget about the pain," she said.

Natural Childbirth at Home

Supporters of home birth say the experience of bearing a child is enhanced when kept intensely personal and completely natural.

"I felt like I'd touched the eternal, when you look back at your baby and your hands are the first to touch her," Shanley said. "I mean, this experience will carry me through the rest of my life."

Choosing home birth could be considered the polar opposite of choosing the increasingly common and popular C-section. It's how one in three American women have given birth. In some circles, the procedure has been called "too posh to push."

"It's major abdominal surgery," Lake said. "I mean, some women are justifying, you know, 'Oh, because I want to avoid the pain of labor.' They want to have C-sections, and I can see the appeal on a certain level, because women are working -- we're busy, we are trying to fit everything into our lives."

When Something Goes Wrong

Many modern women who plan an unassisted birth choose an available hospital as a backup plan. But home births don't always have happy endings.

Some woman who choose not to take advantage of the latest medical interventions say they have been socially tainted when something goes wrong with a home birth.

After three successful unassisted births and before the fourth, Shanley had a son with a rare heart problem who died just hours after being born at home.

"If you have a baby that's born at home, and especially in an unassisted birth, regardless of the fact that the coroner said, 'This baby would not have survived,' you know, there are still people that will blame me for my baby's death," Shanley said. "And that's just something that I have to accept.

Abby Epstein, the director of Lake's documentary, said she planned on having her first child at home, but complications gave the film an unexpectedly dramatic climax.

"We didn't know how fast the labor was going to be," she said. "My midwife came over and said, 'you're four centimeters, you're having this baby.'"

The baby was breech and Epstein had to be rushed to the hospital, luckily just one tension-filled cab ride away. Both mother and baby were fine.

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