Homebirth and conspiracy theories


Just last month an independent investigator released data on Oregon homebirth deaths. The death rate for planned homebirth with a direct-entry midwife in 2012 was more than 800% higher than term hospital birth.

This is cold, hard, in your face data; what are Oregon homebirth midwives and advocates doing about it? They are NOT attempting to improve standards for Oregon’s self-proclaimed “midwives.” Rather they are spinning conspiracy theories about the data and, worst of all, about Judith Rooks, the certified nurse midwife epidemiologist who presented them.

Coincidentally, I read an interview in Salon yesterday about conspiracy theories and it has a great deal of relevance for Oregon homebirth midwives and homebirth advocates. The article, aptly titled Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories is an interview with Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Western Australia, known for her work on climate denial. Just about everything he says in regards to climate denialists applies to Oregon homebirth midwives and their supporters.

First of all, why do people believe conspiracy theories?

There are number of factors, but probably one of the most important ones in this instance is that, paradoxically, it gives people a sense of control. People hate randomness, they dread the sort of random occurrences that can destroy their lives, so as a mechanism against that dread, it turns out that it’s much easier to believe in a conspiracy…

Homebirth advocacy give women a sense of control over pregnancy and childbirth. By pretending that “trusting” birth, eating right and having long prenatal appointments can prevent devastating complications, women feel a false sense of control over pregnancy outcomes.

Homebirth midwives and their supporters invoke a wide variety of conspiracy theories, including the purported conspiracy of obstetricians to ruin your birth experience, the purported conspiracy of doctors who fear a financial threat from homebirth midwives, and the conspiracy of organized medicine to ignore the safety of homebirth.

One aspect of conspiracy belief seemed particularly relevant to Oregon homebirth midwives and their supporters:

Another common trait is the need to constantly expand the conspiracy as new evidence comes to light. For instance, with the so-called Climategate scandal, there were something like nine different investigations, all of which have exonerated the scientists involved. But the response from the people who held this notion was to say that all of those investigations were a whitewash. So it started with the scientists being corrupt and now not only is it them, but it’s also all the major scientific organizations of the world that investigated them and the governments of the U.S. and the U.K., etc., etc…

Hence the need to add Judith Rooks to the conspiracy. Do the hideous death rates show that homebirth with an Oregon homebirth midwife is dangerous. Of course they do, unless you are a conspiracy theorist. Homebirth conspiracy theorists can ignore the data right in front of them by insisting that Judith Rooks is part of the conspiracy, too.

Everyone is prone to some degree of bias and motivated reasoning — where do you draw the line, if there is one?

The crucial difference between having a preconceived notion — we all do that, of course — and conspiratorial thinking is when you get into that self-sealing reasoning and ignore every piece of evidence that is pointing the other way, when you’re starting to broaden the circle of conspirators …

The evidence doesn’t matter to homebirth midwives and their supporters, because they can blithely ignore any evidence that they don’t like. From mind bogglingly stupid pronouncements like that of author and advocate Jennifer Margulis: “Oregon has some of the safest best homebirth stats in the country IF YOU DON’T COUNT PORTLAND…” to the ugly insinuations that Judith Rooks is part of the conspiracy, homebirth advocates reach for their conspiracy theories to justify their refusal to look at the evidence.

There’s nothing we can do about the conspiracy theorists, but we can educate the public to the fact that homebirth advocates are deliberately ignoring the scientific evidence.

And we can point to something else: We can point out that Oregon homebirth midwives KNOW that the data is hideous. That’s why they refused to release the MANA statistics for Oregon, and that’s why they are not publicly announcing a major investigation into the data. The leadership of Oregon homebirth midwives, including Melissa Cheyney and Silke Anderson, are engaged in an ongoing effort to hide the truth about Oregon homebirth. Dead babies are just collateral damage in their effort to support lay birth junkies in pretending they are “midwives.” People who are unafraid of the truth launch investigations; people who are afraid of the truth launch conspiracy theories, instead.