Nature thinks babies are expendable


Two of the central conceits of the natural childbirth and homebirth industries is that women are “perfectly designed to give birth,” and “babies know how to be born.”

They are conceits not merely because they are untrue, but also because advocates imagine human beings as somehow immune to the forces and exigencies that rule birth among all other animals. The truth is that Nature thinks babies are expendable, and, to a lesser extent, mothers are expendable, too.

One of the main characteristics of reproduction in the animal kingdom (and the plant kingdom) is massive wastage. The chance of any individual organism surviving to adulthood is very small; therefore, massive amounts of offspring must be produced, because most of them are naturally going to die.

Think about how many seeds are produced by an individual plant. Think about how many larvae are produced by one insect. Think about how many eggs are produced by an individual fish. Then think about how many of those survive to become the adult form: only a vanishingly small proportion.

The classic example is the thousands of baby turtles who all hatch on a single night and immediately begin clambering across the beach to safety in the sea. Along the way they must travel a gaunlet of predators and most will not survive.

Of course plants, insects, fish and turtles don’t generally care for their offspring. Their investment in the next generation ends with birth, or even before.

How about those animals that invest time in brooding or gestating their young? For them, parental energy expenditure is much greater and the the proportion of offspring that are lost before adulthood is consequently much lower. It is still relatively high, which is why most animals reproduce every year or every other year.

Not surprisingly, there appears to be a correlation between the amount of parental time and energy invested in offsrpring and the proportion of those offspring that survive. Even when the parental contribution is enormous, however, such as in larger animals, death rates are extraordinarily high. For example, it is estimated that one out of two lion cubs will not survive its first year.

Human beings devote the most time and energy to raising the next generation. Pregnancy is 9 months long, infancy is nearly 2 years, and childhood lasts for up to 18 years. This intensive investment ensures that a high proportion of babies will survive to adulthood, but it is entirely compatible with losing 10%, 20% or even more children.

When you take the long view, the proportion of survivors is even smaller. Human females are born with millions of eggs, and human males produce billions of sperm. Most will never even be used in reproduction. Even when sperm meets egg, fertilization can fail; cell division can fail; uterine implantation can fail. For successfully established human pregnancies, the miscarriage rate is one in five (20%). These are all natural occurrences. How can anyone claim that women are perfectly designed (or evolved) to give birth when they can’t even sustain 20% of all pregnancies?

Obviously, they are not perfectly designed (or evolved). That’s not surprising since nature doesn’t “do” perfect; it only does good enough. In every generation, only the fittest survive. That means that the less fit will die.

This applies to childbirth as to any other aspect of human existence. Only the fittest babies will survive childbirth and only the fittest mothers. Fittest in this sense does not mean physically fit; it means having the characteristics that are most suitable in the specific setting. Hence very big babies are in danger of dying (and killing their mothers) during childbirth. They may be robust and strapping, but if their heads are too large to negotiate the maternal pelvis, they will die and their mothers will die, too. They weren’t fittest for the particular environment in which they existed.

Nature thinks that human babies and human mothers are expendable, subject to the exact same natural forces that kill babies of other species. The difference between humans and all other animals is NOT that humans are perfectly designed for nearly 100% survival in birth. The difference is that we can change our environment in ways that ensure that babies who would otherwise die will live instead.

Technology is our secret weapon.

Consider that human beings have come to inhabit nearly every climate on the globe. We have been successful in frigid climates NOT because the air got warmer, but because of our technology: clothes, houses, and heating. No one would suggest that we are “overusing” or should give up any of those technologies in order to return to our paleolithic past. Nor would anyone suggest that since were were “meant” to live in Africa, we should all return there so that clothes, houses and heating would no longer be necessary.

Technology also allows the same baby whose head is too big to fit through his mother’s pelvis to be delivered instead through a C-section incision. The baby will survive and the mother will survive, too. Neither will be compromised in the slightest by the surgery. Yet natural childbirth and homebirth advocates insist that we are overusing technology in childbirth and that we should give it up. The babies who die without access to that technology are dismissed as “meant” to die.

The facts of reproduction are no different for human beings than for any other animals. Women are NOT designed to give birth perfectly and babies are NOT designed to survive birth. The difference between human beings and all other animals is this: Our technology is perfectly designed to help women give birth safely. Our technology is perfectly designed to help every baby possible survive birth.

Natural childbirth and homebirth advocates who prattle that women are perfectly designed to give birth and babies are perfectly designed to be born suffer from the conceit that humans aren’t subject to the same natural forces as all other animals. They live in a fantasy world made possible by the liberal use of the technologies that they deplore. Childbirth isn’t safe; it only appears that way because technology is used.

That fantasy world shatters in the face of the reality of childbirth: it is dangerous and many mothers and babies aren’t perfectly designed to survive it. Fortunately, most women are smart enough and astute enough to avail themselves of the technology that allows them to survive despite imperfection.