The most poignant aspect of science denial is when those too young to make choices on the matter suffer for it. This includes infants dead from measles because of anti-vaxxers, a painful death or lifetime paralysis because readily available medical care was eschewed by faith healers, or when a routine illnesses lingers because over the counter medication is bypassed for jasmine rubs and Reiki sessions.
Another example has emerged lately in the form of free birthing. This refers to intentionally giving birth away from a hospital, sometimes at home, but often in the forest, on a mountaintop, or even amongst dolphins.
The Daily Beast told one such tale centering on an infant named Journey Moon. The moniker is comical, but the story is anything but funny. She was stillborn after her pseudonymous mother attempted a free birth in the desert.
It was just she and her husband. No doctors, doula, nurse, midwife, or even a Lamaze instructor. Indeed, free birthers prefer to go it alone, maybe with a partner and hoping for an audience of ravens and wolves, surrounded by cacti, flowing rivers, and a full moon. They romanticize about long-gone eras where humans allegedly lived in concert with nature and spent most of their day outdoors.
But this is a romanticized version that ignores that the average life span was about 38, that a straw hut was cutting-edge shelter, and that the infant and birthing mother mortality rates were 20 times what they are today. And while free birthers want no one else around, they often have thousands of Facebook followers in groups set up for this specific purpose. The mother profiled in The Daily Beast article had supporters who were only too happy to tell her she was a “legend” and a “warrior woman” who should “trust the process.”
That trust led to her having a massive urinary tract infection which killed her daughter before she left the womb. Free birthers consider it an issue of a woman’s autonomy and they feel the rate of unnecessary cesarean sections and episiotomies too high. That is a legitimate health issue, but if the welfare of the mother and baby are paramount, hospital birthing is the way to go.
The Daily Beast quoted OB-GYN professor Bruce Young, who said there is a one in five chance a home or other free birth would involve life-threatening complications for the mother or child. By contrast, the chance of the mother or baby dying in the hospital during birth is less than one percent. Stillbirth is a steep price to pay for being able to bypass an unwanted caesarean. And as Katie Paulson wrote in Patheos, “Childbirth is the leading cause of death for women and infants in the world.” That makes having it done in a hospital is the best health decision a woman can make when giving birth.
Free birth social media groups often remove any comments encouraging a woman to seek treatment. This creates an echo chamber where expectant mothers have their risky decisions validated. Such pages lean heavily on the Naturalist fallacy and are permeated with a vaguely spiritual appeal centering on concepts like primal urges and personal empowerment.
But there was no such power for the profiled free birther, who after three days of excruciating unobserved labor gave up and left the desert for a doctor. Even after the baby died, her mother maintained her meandering New Age mindset, asking the deceased newborn to “usher in the spirits of her future siblings when the time was right.”
Like an anti-vaxxer who thinks insulin causes diabetes or a Young Earth Creationist who thinks God created starlight in transit, free birthers live in an isolated reality where they are disconnected from facts and immune to change, reason, or evidence. Free birthers make the drastically mistaken claim that newborns have a better chance of surviving if they enter the world outside of a medical establishment.
Yet countries where women have regular access to medical care have much lower rates of maternal mortality and stillbirth than those that do not. Most developed countries have a stillbirth rate four per 1,000, whereas Third World nations have a rate 10 times that. The maternal mortality rate in those nations is even more pronounced, at 20 times those in developed countries.
Free birthers answer that data with anecdotes from expectant mothers who were given drugs without their permission or who were subjected to vaginal exams without their consent. These are serious issues if true, but such arguments overlook the crucial point of hospital safety and competence. By way of comparison, vaccines aren’t completely safe in every instance, but neither is polio. Free birthers defend it as a matter of choice. Maybe so, but it’s clear what the best choice would be.