Natural childbirth: with thought leaders like this …

I can understand why women who lack basic knowledge of science might believe the made-up “facts” advanced by the natural childbirth and homebirth movements. And I can understand how women who lack basic knowledge of history might be gulled into thinking that childbirth in nature is inherently safe.

But for the life of me, I cannot understand why any woman would believe the clap trap of a movement whose thought leaders are a self-proclaimed midwife with no midwifery training (Ina May Gaskin), a self-described “expert in obstetric research” with no training in either obstetrics or research (Henci Goer), and a washed up TV talk show host (Ricki Lake). Between the three of them they have NO training in obstetrics, NO training in midwifery, and NO degrees in the fields in which they claim expertise.

Notice a theme here? I do. All three are “self-proclaimed” experts, as if one could acquire expertise by simply declaring that you have it. It’s a classic tactic in pseudoscience. As Physics Professor Rory Coker has written in his article Distinguishing Science from Pseudoscience, pseudoscience appeals to false authority and distrust:

A high-school dropout is accepted as an expert on archaeology … A psychoanalyst is accepted as an expert on all of human history, not to mention physics, astronomy, and mythology, even though his claims are inconsistent with everything known in all four fields…”

In the case of natural childbirth and homebirth, three lay people with no expertise in anything are accepted by their followers as experts on obstetrics, midwifery and statistics. How can anyone believe anything they say?

They are, of course, only the current leading exponents. Perhaps women believe the absurd claims of natural childbirth and homebirth advocacy because of the stellar credentials of the founders of these movements and the respect they are accorded by colleagues. No, it can’t be that. Although they were both doctors, but it is widely accepted among science and health professionals that both Grantly Dick-Read and Fernand Lamaze made up their claims and had no scientific basis for those claims.

Grantly Dick-Read, the father of natural childbirth, was quite clear about his racist and sexist eugenics beliefs and how that influenced his philosophy. He never hid the fact that his theory of natural childbirth was a direct result of his belief that primitive (read black) women were hypersexualiized, knew their place and therefore had painless childbirth, while white women of the “better classes” had developed shriveled ovaries, and painful childbirth because they had acquired education and political rights. As he put it:

… [T]he mother is the factory, and by education and care she can be made more efficient in the art of motherhood.

And:

Woman fails when she ceases to desire the children for which she was primarily made. “Her true emancipation lies in freedom to fulfil her biological purposes …

Fernand Lamaze was hardly any better. According to Sheila Kitzinger:

… Lamaze consistently ranked the women’s performance in childbirth from “excellent” to “complete failure” on the basis of their “restlessness and screams.” Those who “failed” were, he thought, “themselves responsible because they harbored doubts or had not practiced sufficiently,” and, rather predictably, “intellectual” women who “asked too many questions” were considered by Lamaze to be the most “certain to fail.”

So natural childbirth and homebirth advocates are not drawn to the philosophy by the beliefs of its originators.

What’s the appeal then? The appeal is the ego boost that natural childbirth and homebirth advocates get by setting a goal that literally any woman could achieve and then receiving plaudits from the thought leaders and fellow believers for “achieving” it. People pay attention to Ina May Gaskin, Henci Goer and Ricki Lake, not because of what they know, since they know very little, but because they make their followers feel good.

Nonetheless, although I understand the appeal of praise, natural childbirth and homebirth advocacy sets a new standard of desperation. Believers are so desperate to feel good about themselves that they are willing to embrace a philosophy whose thought leaders know virtually nothing about the subject of their purported “expertise.”

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