Home birthing experts argue that giving birth at home is just as safe as being in a hospital for women in low-risk categories. That may be close to the truth, but only if nothing goes wrong. And the problem is that when it comes to giving birth, you never, ever know what might go wrong. Fit, healthy young women can still unexpectedly have horrible, traumatic births. I should know, because I had one with my first son. The Federal Government announced yesterday that professional indemnity insurance would not cover midwives who help women give birth at home.
They’re signaling that home births are outside acceptable birthing practices and thus midwives who attend home births are basically on their own. But this will not outlaw home births. It will just drive them more underground, where women are further away than ever from the medical treatment they or their babies might need in an emergency. In fact, even supporters of home births say the moves will lead to a rise in so-called free births, where women are assisted only by a doula, or birthing assistant, who is not trained to resuscitate babies or mothers.
For this reason, further steps need to be taken to make home births illegal. It’s all very well for a mother to want an earth-loving, feel-good experience while giving birth, but she shouldn’t put her child’s life at risk. Surely the announcement by Health Minister Nicola Roxon means it’s time for the home birthing movement to consider the safety of the children rather than just the needs of the mother? Sure, there are only 700 or so home births in Australia each year, but I think that’s 700 too many.
The issue is gaining the sort of attention the home birth advocates wouldn’t want. In an Australian first, the South Australian Coroner decided last week to investigate the death of little Tate Spencer-Koch, who was stillborn in 2007. Tate was born at home, assisted by a midwife. She became stuck by her shoulders for 20 minutes in the birth canal. She was deprived of oxygen and died. It’s the first time an essentially stillborn baby has been subjected to a coronial inquest – and under Victorian law a similar inquest could never occur.
In most cases a stillborn baby would be outside the scope of a coroner because he or she was deemed not to have been living. But paramedics said there were natural electric pulses around Tate’s heart, and that’s enough to give the coroner power to investigate. So let’s hope the intervention of the Coroner’s Court helps parents to take their responsibilities more seriously. When I read about home births like this one going wrong, I can’t help but think about my first son, Tom. I was 33 and very healthy when I became pregnant with Tom.
Although he was a bit underweight in the womb, he’d been developing normally. I was induced at 37 weeks because of his small size, but fully expected to have a normal, natural delivery in a private city hospital. What happened next still chokes me up almost seven years later. After 16 hours of drug-assisted labor, and a lot of pushing and puffing, the real work was about to begin. Our obstetrician began the actual delivery and that’s when things started to go horribly wrong. She discovered that my pelvis was too narrow for the baby’s head to pass. He was stuck. His heart rate was dropping.
And he was becoming traumatized after such a long labor. It was 11. 30 at night – and there wasn’t even time for staff to be prepped for an emergency caesarean. So our obstetrician called in a neonatal pediatrician, scrubbed up, grabbed two sets of forceps and pulled him out by his head. I fully believe that it was only her amazing skill that saved his life. He was rushed into the ICU and given saline and a number of injections to keep him alive. My husband and I sat sobbing next to his humid crib for hours, watching his strained breathing as he battled to stay alive.
Tom was so battered and bruised that his entire body was purple, and he was under UV lights for a week. The entire process was so traumatic for his 2. 5kg body (that’s just 5lb 5oz) that he stopped breathing a few hours later and the emergency pediatric team had to save his life once more. Today, he’s a vibrant, healthy, awesome six year-old, and a small scar just below his left eye is the only sign of the trauma he endured. But where would he be if I was a mother who thought more about me and my needs during labor than the safety of my child?
Sure, babies die in hospitals too and there is no guarantee that being in a hospital would have saved all babies who die during birth. But surely they have a much better chance of survival with world-class medical intervention close at hand. I don’t want anyone to think that I support doctors taking over birthing totally. I fully support the excellent work done by registered midwives in appropriate venues. And I totally respect a woman’s choice to have a natural, nurturing, non-interventionist birth.
But there are ways to get this without the risks associated with giving birth at home. Birthing centers led by midwives attached to hospitals are an excellent solution, which give women the control they want over birth. Under the changes announced by Nicola Roxon, it will be even easier than ever for women to take these options. We all read the amazing story of kidney transplant survivor Katie Field, who risked her own life to have a baby. If a parent wants to risk his or her own life, that is one thing, but we shouldn’t risk the lives of our babies.