How birth was hijacked

Maternity special
For International Women's Day, the Ecologist reports on the maternity care crisis and looks at ways to overcome the culture of fear facing mothers-to-be

So you want kids, do you? At the Ecologist, we're not going to preach about the impending population bomb, and its devastating impact on scarce resources and the earth's changing climate. At least, not for now. No, we want to talk about the joys of having children. Becoming a parent is the beginning of the roller coaster ride of a lifetime. But when the thrill is gone, we're left with worry and white knuckles. Childbirth, one of life's most empowering experiences, has been hijacked. It's become institutionalised, taken over by technology, exiled from communities into hospitals and overhyped on TV dramas by scare-mongering pundits.

As we don't see it happening in our daily lives - around two per cent of births in England are home births - it is no longer part of our communities. This means that, especially for women, what we know about childbirth, before we experience it ourselves, is through stories. And stories are primarily about fear. The fear of childbirth is invisible - but extremely contagious. As Pat Thomas argues in Birth Uncut, fear is a big factor behind the increasingly difficult, unsatisfying, births that have even led some women to forgo the natural experience in favour of major abdominal surgery, the elective caesarian operation.

Midwives, from time immemorial, have been the principal guides for women in childbirth. But their expertise and their role has been compromised in many industrialised countries. With the demise of traditional midwifery, we have the rise of medicalised birth. As we've lost our guides to childbirth, we have lost sight of the meaning of birth.

The Ecologist meets pioneering midwife Ina May Gaskin, who has helped thousands of women tap into their inner mammal. ‘If chimpanzees can do it, so can we,' she says. The practical consequences of fear in childbirth are proven: instead of oxytocin, the love hormone that open up the body, we have adrenaline, which shuts down our natural processes. This leads to, for many, a cascade of interventions. Having the right hormones makes a huge difference in the kind of birth you have. This is what doctors don't tell you.

The fear extends far beyond childbirth. As breastfeeding women, we are shunned in public. Popular culture is top heavy, but once a woman needs to expose her breasts to feed an infant, she becomes a hooter hider. For one breastfeeding mum, Claire Jones-Hughes, enough was enough. After being accosted in a Brighton café, she got angry and organised a Breastfeeding Flash Mob. The Ecologist meets this revolutionary lactivist.

The modern day myths of parenthood: from ‘normal' life returning, to ‘normal' child development, can be tyrannical. We want to ‘Occupy Birth' and offer resources and advice - from how to find a neighbourhood midwife, to tips on drug-free labours.

Thank goodness for the technology that has enabled women to safely give birth in life-threatening situations. Caesarians do save lives, as Andrew Wasley argues. Yet, for the vast majority of us, technology has been a double-edged sword. It's the last resort that we have begun to consider as a must-have. In doing so, we have relinquished the belief in our ability to give birth without it.

Giving birth for the first time, I was consumed by fear. Fear led me from a painful labour at home to screaming through a hospital corridor accompanied by heavies holding me down in a gurney. Yet I survived to have a second birth, this time at home. I'm still on a high from the experience, even though it was four years ago. There is nothing to fear about childbirth. And we have everything to lose in giving in to it.


  • Top 10 tips for a drug-free labour. Whether it's raspberry leaf tea or a spot of stretching, pregnancy massage specialist Holly Jeffery suggests some all-natural ways to keep labour pain at bay
  • How to get fit, healthy (and slim) the natural way. Thanks to celebrity new mothers, pressure to get back into shape straight after giving birth has never been higher. But don't succumb to the lure of extreme diets, as natural fitness experts explain, slow and steady wins the race. By Phoebe Doyle



More from this author