Childbirth is dangerous

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Natural childbirth advocates are distressed that in the space of one week The New York Times published my piece on the dangers of homebirth and The Washington Post published my piece on the role of shame and guilt in promoting the natural childbirth industry.

What seems to make them most upset is that I point out that childbirth is inherently dangerous. It is a reflection of their profound ignorance of the medical and historical reality of childbirth that they are unaware of this basic fact. Sure, childbirth seems safe to them, but they are clueless that it only looks safe because of the liberal use of the routine interventions of modern obstetrics.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The risk of a baby dying on the day of its birth is greater than the average daily risk of death until the 92nd year of life.[/pullquote]

Perhaps they’ve never considered how the many tiny graves in old cemeteries got there or why family genealogies tend to be full of forefathers who survived to old age having buried two or three young wives along the way.

In that respect, the natural childbirth industry has a lot in common with the anti-vaccine industry. Both looks at the US as it is, with low rates of death from vaccine preventable diseases and low rates of death from childbirth, and imagine in their naïveté that this is how it has always been. It’s the intellectual equivalent of pretending that we know no longer need to use car seats for babies because the motor vehicle fatality rate for infants is so low. Both modern obstetrics and vaccines are the equivalent of car seats. Take them away and the appalling death rates will return.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.

The dangers of the day of birth was published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology in Februrary 2014. One of the authors wrote about it on his personal blog.

The authors recognize that most people in industrialized countries think that childbirth is safe:

… these risks are generally perceived to be low, and as a result many parents resent the intrusiveness of hospital birth, fetal monitoring, and other recommendations…

Much of the risk of childbirth remains concentrated in a relatively short period: the day of labour and delivery. In addition, when death occurs so early in life it results in more life years lost on average than when death occurs at an older age.

We speculated that expressed on a daily risk scale, instead of as per thousand births, childbirth risks would appear very different. We aimed to calculate the risk of dying on each day of your life, and compare these risks with other activities or events that an individual may encounter. This information would then be used to calculate the loss of life expectancy sustained with death occurring on the day of birth.

What did they find?

Even with modern obstetric practice the risk of a baby dying on the day of its birth in the UK is greater than the average daily risk of death until the 92nd year of life. We have shown that this risk is comparable with many other high-risk activities, and results in many life years lost.

So childbirth isn’t safe for babies. It is quite dangerous, comparable to the risk of death for the average 92 year old adult and comparable to the risk of death for those facing major surgery. The graphic representation is impressive:


The risk in the US is even higher as a result of a higher rate of risk factors and a lower rate of health care access than in the UK.

And that’s the risk when the baby has access to immediate life saving care. The risk at homebirth is higher still.

When natural childbirth or homebirth advocates tell you that childbirth is safe, show them the graph, and see what they have to say then.

If they still tell you to trust birth, you have learned why you should never trust them.


Adapted from a piece that first appeared in April 2014.