Natural childbirth is in the news again – and not in a good way

The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman argues that natural childbirth has become “yet another stick with which to accuse women of being insufficiently self-sacrificing as mothers.”

The source of the controversy is Michel Odent, one of the most well-known proponents of natural birth, who in two new books has said that increased medicalisation of childbirth has resulted in women losing the capacity to give birth naturally.

According to the Telegraph report, Odent believes women are experiencing longer labours as the result of the drugs and surgery they are given. It quotes him as saying:

“To me it demonstrates the obvious – that women are losing the capacity to give birth. That is the primary phenomenon. . .the number of women who give birth to babies naturally is becoming insignificant.”

He also, the report says, argues against the use of artificial oxytocin in labour, because it reduces women’s ability to produce natural oxytocin:

“But evolution will erase physiological functions that are underused, said Odent, warning that future generations of women may not produce it.”

Freeman, herself expecting twins, argues reasonably that longer labours are more likely to be a result of women having babies later, and the babies themselves getting bigger, than of medical intervention.

It also seems unlikely, to say the least, that giving artificial oxytocin to some women will result in women en masse being unable to produce oxytocin during childbirth. Even if it did, it would take a very long time for that to have an evolutionary impact.

But however they have been interpreted, I suspect that Odent’s views were targeted at the medical profession, rather than at women. I don’t know any woman who has asked to have artificial oxytocin during labour, and very few who have asked for other interventions such as induction, caesarean section or a forceps delivery.

And women are under at least as much pressure to have an unnatural birth as a natural one. Women who want a natural birth or even a home birth are liable to be derided as selfish, unrealistic and narcissistic ­– and even of putting their baby’s life at risk. In the comments below Freeman’s piece, one commenter, claiming to be an obstetrician, bemoans the number of women coming into hospital with “militant” birth plans – as if wanting to have some control over how you give birth is an extreme position.

However women give birth, there’s always someone ready to leap up and tell them they’ve done it wrong. It’s no wonder that for some women, giving birth is not a source of joy but of guilt, trauma and depression.

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