Freebirth is akin to vaccine refusal

Young woman making a stop pose

A number of recent deaths in the freebirth community have been publicized by Katie Paulson in a series of Patheos columns.

“Lisa,” a member of a Facebook freebirth group for women who refuse any medical care for childbirth told the group:

My water broke the evening of the 4th and was discolored. Since I was 42 weeks I thought it was normal. But as the days went by it got more foul smelling and turned a sick poop color which was constantly leaking and the baby stopped moving on the 6th.

I woke on the 7th with so much pain and pouring meconium that Chris and I agreed it was time to transfer.

The baby was already dead. According to Lisa, the baby died of a massive infection.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Freebirth is NOT a reproductive right.[/pullquote]

The mainstream media have picked up the story and have expressed sympathy for freebirthers in general and “Lisa” in particular. They’ve been swayed by claims that freebirth is an issue of reproductive freedom.

Beth Greenfield of Yahoo Lifestyle wrote:

The baby’s death, then, and resulting fiery discourse, has for many been a line in the sand — with those on one side seeing freebirthing as a reckless choice that selfishly flouts the standards of modern medicine, and those on the other seeing it as the powerful epitome of a woman’s right to choose. The argument is strikingly similar in tone to that of this country’s abortion debate, with one question at the center of it all: How freely should a woman be to choose her childbirth experience?

I would argue that abortion is the wrong frame for this analysis since freebirth is not a reproductive right. Reproductive rights involve women’s right to control whether and when to reproduce; they encompass contraception and pregnancy termination. Reproductive rights are positive rights, requiring as they do both availability and access to birth control and abortion.

Freebirth is an issue of refusal of medical care, a negative right, a right to be left alone.

Indeed, reproductive rights advocates acknowledge this in an article written by Emily Shugerman of The Daily Beast.

According to [reproductive rights attorney Farah] Diaz-Tello, laws governing childbirth generally apply to providers, not to birthing mothers. The reasoning: Any U.S. resident has the right to refuse medical treatment, regardless of whether it is in their best interest. To prosecute a freebirthing mother, she said, the state would have to prove its own interest superseded that right.

“That would be a pretty remarkable thing to say,” Diaz-Tello said. “If you don’t go to the hospital when something’s going wrong, we’re going to what, seize your body and make you do it?”

Freebirth is akin not to abortion but to vaccine refusal.

Make no mistake, every pregnant woman has the legal right to refuse medical care even if that refusal will result in the death of the baby.

A mother’s legal obligation to the baby do not begin until the baby is born and separate from her. The baby does acquire a legal right to healthcare at the moment of birth. In practical terms that means that a woman has no legal obligation to seek medical care for an unborn child. If that child is born dead, no laws have been violated. In contrast, the mother does NOT have the right to refuse lifesaving medical care for a baby born alive. Had Lisa’s baby been born alive at home, she would have been legally obligated to call for medical assistance if the child showed signs of poor health.

Similarly a mother has a right to refuse vaccines for her child. The government and the medical profession cannot vaccinate a child without a parent’s consent.

In either case, the right to refuse care does not imply a right to be free of criticism for that refusal. Had Lisa’s baby been born alive and subsequently died of whooping cough after not being vaccinated, there would be nothing wrong with people pointing out that the baby died BECAUSE OF Lisa’s refusal of vaccines, that she bore responsibility for that death, and that it was ignorance of immunology, science and statistics that led her to make a terrible, deadly decision.

Similarly, there is nothing wrong with people pointing out that Lisa’s baby died in utero BECAUSE OF Lisa’s refusal of childbirth medical care, that she bears moral responsibility for that preventable death, and that it was ignorance of childbirth and its inherent dangers that led her to make a terrible, deadly choice.

In my view, NO ONE should have written to her personally, but there’s nothing wrong with reporting on the deadly results of such faulty reasoning. It’s like the decision to refuse to put a baby in a car seat. Were the baby to die from being ejected through the window in a crash, no one should write to the mother personally, but there’s nothing wrong with reporting on the deadly results of such faulty reasoning.

Publicizing freebirth tragedies does not compromise reproductive rights, because freebirth is not a reproductive right. It’s the same as the right to refuse any lifesaving medical treatment, no more and no less.