Michel Odent Speaks Out About Caesareans

Michel Odent, the man who, in the words of the Guardian, “encouraged women to experience pain-free labour in warm pools of water and was the first to write about the importance of placing newborn babies to the breast” has now warned about the dangers to the human race of the rise in caesarean sections.

In a new book called The Birth of Homo, The Marine Chimpanzee, Odent argues that modern medicalised births are working against evolution. Caesarean-born babies are more likely, for example, to be autistic. From the Guardian article:

“One effect of modern obstetrics is to neutralise the laws of natural selection – the laws that foiled us all [in the past]. We have neutralised those laws. It means that at the beginning of the 20th century, a woman who could not give birth naturally would die, whereas the one in the village who could give birth easily would have 12 children. Today, the number of children one has depends on other factors than the physical capacity to give birth.

“I mainly talk about obstetrics, but we can also talk about conception. If you cannot have a child, you can have medicalised conception. So we have neutralised the laws of natural selection. It is one of the biggest problems for humanity today and people don’t realise that. Any mathematician, any statistician interested in this topic will find ways to calculate what will happen – in my book I give several examples.”

“One of the biggest problems for humanity today”? That’s a pretty big claim – particularly if you think about global warming, pollution and the decline in the bee population. And those are just the environmental problems – don’t let’s forget the rise in antibiotic resistance and the imminent threat of nuclear war.

Evolution is brutal

So is Odent right to identify modern methods of childbirth and conception as a problem? Well, in a sense, yes. A hundred or so years ago, as he points out, a woman who could not give birth naturally would die. These days, a woman who can’t give birth naturally survives, thanks to surgical intervention.

Any normal person would surely see this as a cause for rejoicing. You could argue, as Odent does, that as a result of caesareans and other interventions, we’re breeding a race of humans who are ill-equipped for survival: women who have pelvises too narrow for a baby to pass through will give birth to daughters with similarly narrow pelvises. And so on. But it’s difficult to see why this is a problem. Modern medicine is saving lots of people who would otherwise have died: premature babies, babies with disabilities, children with diseases such as measles and meningitis. Vaccines for diseases such as polio and diphtheria mean that children who would previously have been too weak to survive those diseases are now never exposed to them in the first place. Unless we abandon using modern medicine altogether, then we simply have to accept that the laws of natural selection are well and truly “neutralised”.

When he argues that caesarean sections result in more autistic children, then he is, as the Guardian points out, confusing correlation and causation. The paper quotes autism specialist Paul Wang:

“A foetus with developmental issues may have low muscle tone that can interfere with moving into proper position for natural delivery. In this and other ways, the foetus plays a crucial role in initiating and advancing natural labour.”

Don’t worry your pretty little heads about science

But suppose he’s right? Suppose caesarean sections were causing more children to be born with autism? What could we possibly do? Stop performing caesareans and allow babies and their mothers to die?

Obviously not. It’s difficult to see how the argument achieves anything other than to make pregnant women, bombarded with advice from all sides, even more worried than they already are. Odent is quoted as saying: “I put a caveat in my books – they are not for pregnant women. I tell them not to read them. They are books for people who are interested in the future of human beings – preferably ones with a scientific background, people interested in thinking in terms of the future and the future of the species. That’s the public I want to reach.”

In Odent’s mental Venn diagram, there is clearly no overlap between women who are scientists and women who are pregnant.

Pregnancy sickness is good, apparently

But Odent has form for this. While acknowledging that women used to die in childbirth before modern medicine, he accuses modern doctors of terrifying women through the use of medical terminology. In a 2013 interview with the Telegraph, he apparently “uses the example of dramatizing healthy morning sickness that indicates a thriving foetus into the much more serious condition of ‘Hyperemesis Gravidarum.’”

This sounds plausible until you meet a woman who has suffered hyperemesis to the extent where she is vomiting 24 hours a day, and cannot keep down anything, even a sip of water. Women die from untreated hyperemesis.

In the same article, Odent attacks the use of synthetic oxytocin which also, he argues (but with very little evidence), correlates with a rise in autism. (Autism has clearly become Odent’s thing.)

Odent wants us to believe he is motivated by genuine scientific curiosity. But in identifying intervention in childbirth, rather than, say, antibiotics or vaccines, as a threat to natural selection, we can see a more sinister agenda at work – a desire to turn the clock back to a time before modern medicine. Though only, of course, for women.



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.