Thursday, April 24, 2014

Beyond the Birth Wars

The Grieving Parents by Kathe Kollwitz
Since writing two essays which address the natural childbirth movement (first in 2011, then again last week) I feel a bit as if I've been sucked into the tunnel vision of the Birth Wars

Taking a step back, I see it all as a paltry debate among those of us who are lucky enough to have quality and choices when it comes to our health care.

Don't read me wrong; it's clear that there is a whole lot of natural childbirth woo out there that is distinctly anti-science, anti-medical establishment, and anti-feminist. It is clear that lay midwives attending high-risk births in homes instead of hospitals has resulted in the preventable deaths of babies and women. 

It's just that in reading about the broader picture of birth in both America and across the world, I see a much greater concentration of death and harm among the economically disadvantaged, and especially women of color. I feel compelled to check my priorities. It's not that every woman and baby doesn't matter. It's that every woman and baby does matter.    

The Widow II by Kathe Kollwitz
For many pregnant women and their newborn babies, the difference between rich and poor is the difference between life and death. For instance, according to Save the Children's State of the World's Mothers 2013, in Cambodia, babies born to the poorest 20% of parents have a 144% elevated risk of death compared to babies born to the richest 20%. More than a quarter million women die every year because of complications from childbirth.The dead babies (and consequentially the grieving mothers, many of whom must endure their grief without sufficient social or mental health support) number over a million every year. Without question, most of these deaths are preventable, connected to, and exacerbated by the conditions of poverty.   

America's GDP doesn't make Americans immune to the deadly disadvantages of poverty. In 2011 the World Health Organization reported that the USA had a higher newborn mortality rate than 40 other nations. And a 2010 publication by Amnesty International reported about the high rates of maternal deaths and complications associated with pregnancy and birth for American women. 

In addressing these issues, natural childbirth advocates cry out about overused medical interventions and unnecessary c-sections. But it seems apparent to me that the problems for women and babies at higher risk begin long before a woman becomes pregnant. Food insecurity, poor nutrition, unsafe and/or highly stressful living conditions, and inconsistent access to preventative health care set women up with issues such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity, all of which can easily lead to complications in pregnancy, which then may very well require all those interventions and c-sections. 

Then there's the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about, and often if anyone does, they are shut down: racism. Race is the strongest predictor of outcomes for birth in America (with black women and babies suffering the worst outcomes), and yet when these huge disparities are reported and discussed, the focus tends to stick exclusively to economic disadvantages and ignore the *gasp* possibility that black women are treated differently by doctors, nurses, and other health care workers (not to mention employers, teachers, social workers, or anyone else they encounter and who might impact their lives.) But is it so hard to imagine that pervasive and damning stereotypes of pregnant black women, especially poor, young, pregnant black women, could have at least a subtle impact on the way they are handled and advised by medical professionals during prenatal care, birth, and postpardum care? 

Authors of the 2010 article Closing the Black-White Gap in Birth Outcomes: A Life-Course Approach, outline a 12 point plan which includes suggestions which seem indirectly connected to pregnancy and birth, such as "Invest in community building and urban renewal", and "Reduce poverty among African American families." People who enjoy strong communities and financial security often take their huge benefits for granted and fail to see how they dramatically impact a person's overall health, behavior, and choices. 

Of course the broad suggestions in this 12 point plan need to be refined into specific programs, many uniquely tailored for particular communities, but the overall point is sound. 

The issues that result in dead or injured women and babies at birth can't be solved by either warm and fuzzy homebirth midwives or even a well-trained OB with a scalpel. The physical, emotional, and social needs of impoverished women not being met are far too great. 

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