The article discussed on this page was published in The Independent newspaper, Thursday 26th August 1999. The Independent has not archived this article online, so I have reproduced selected quotes from the article, under the 'fair use' provisions of copyright law.
'Third world mothers like me remain grateful to the professionals for making childbirth risk-free.'
Ms Alibhai-Brown starts by noting that 1,600 women die in pregnancy and childbirth daily worldwide (WHO stats), whereas in the UK the childbirth-related maternal death rate is 1 in 5,300. These figures do not actually allow us to compare maternal mortality in the UK with that worldwide, but most readers will nonetheless be aware that the death rate for mothers here is mercifully low. Few people would disagree with the author's assertion that one reason for such a low maternal death rate in the UK is medical intervention in childbirth, but the article implies that this is the only reason for such a disparity in death rates, and that, more ominously, medical intervention in childbirth is therefore always a good thing.
Ms Alibhai-Brown accuses the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) of 'wittering' about natural childbirth - apparently 'wittering' is another term for expressing a concern that the author deems irrelevant. She accuses the NCT and other childbirth activists of fostering the impression that women:
'want to dance in the meadows with daisies in their hair, mugs of elderberry tea in their hands, and then squat somewhere nice to bring baby into the world. Only every time they are found doing this vile men in white coats take them away to hospital wards and cut them open so that the children are born within office hours.'
The author shares the view of many medics, that childbirth can be 'normal' only in retrospect:
'Without doctors, surgeons and nurses to provide essential care when crises arise - and they do frequently and unexpectedly even for women born to breed - what we call natural childbirth would be unsustainable.'
Few individuals or organisations would dispute the value of medical intervention in emergencies, yet the fact that intervention can sometimes be life-saving does not logically imply that all intervention is life-saving, or that all births need intervention to avoid deaths. Yes, emergency care is sometimes needed; does that render natural childbirth, or the desire for it, somehow pointless? Worthless? Unfortunately the author does not elaborate, so we cannot tell quite where this argument was leading.
Apparently natural childbirth is something that only white, middle-class women value:
'Third World people like me, remain enormously grateful to the British medical professionals for the way they have succeeded in making childbirth almost a risk-free activity. I have had two children... Both were complicated deliveries and in both cases I chose - like many other black and Asian women - so suffer as little pain and complication as possible. Perhaps this is why NCT remains white and middle class, much favoured by the folk of Sussex and Norfolk... for many of us, childbirth is a difficult and dangerous process and we need all the help we can get.'
I wonder how many black and Asian women would be happy with the idea that, by virtue of their cultural heritage, they 'need all the help (they) can get'? Or that they, apparently, are not interested in finding out what their bodies can achieve unaided; they are instead simply grateful that doctors can make these decisions for them. The notion of childbirth as a highly individual experience, where a woman tries to do what is right for her baby and her body, seems not to have occurred to the author. Who needs to treat people as individuals when you can just lump them together by race?
An NCT spokesman told Ms Alibhai-Brown that, for normal deliveries, home births can be safer than hospital births.
'Well, what is normal? And who does not know a story where a normal pregnancy turned very rapidly and frighteningly to abnormal?
Concluding the piece, Alibhai-Brown accuses the NCT and the natural childbirth movement of making thousands of women feel like 'failures' and 'imperfect mothers' because they had intervention in childbirth.
The gist of the article appears to be that natural childbirth is not something worth aiming for, and that all medical intervention should be gratefully accepted.
I would imagine that nearly every 'natural childbirth activist' is indeed truly grateful for medical intervention in cases where the intervention is genuinely needed, and where it works (and is the result of evidence-based medicine). However, Ms Alibhai-Brown does not offer any evidence that all, or even most, intervention in childbirth in the UK is necessary, or is even beneficial to mother or baby.
Right to Reply, by Mary Newburn, Head of Policy Research at the National Childbirth Trust
Letter to Ms Alibhai-Brown from Beverley Lawrence Beech, Hon. Chair of AIMS
Letter to the Editor from Angela Horn
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