“The Most Scientific Birth Is Often the Least Technological Birth”

Here’s an interesting article on the science and ethics of American childbirth, from Alice Dreger in The Atlantic. It rings very true.

My career as a pediatrician attending births has been one long tale of learning a lot of stuff and then unlearning quite a bit of it. When I started in the late 1970s we went after even mildly distressed newborns like a medical SWAT team, with laryngoscopes, oxygen masks and umbilical catheters flying, snatching our pint-sized patients from the jaws of…what, exactly? In retrospect, a lot of them would have been just fine without us. Maybe even better off. (And just to be clear, a lot of them really needed the help, too…)

Things have changed remarkably since then. More and more studies support the wisdom of a patient, mother-centered approach to childbirth, though you wouldn’t know it from current epidural, induction and cesarean rates. Some of the refusal to accept what the research clearly tells us has to do with the way new doctors are often still taught to view childbirth: as a dangerous process in need of strict control. From the article:

“Many medical students, like most American patients, confuse science and technology. They think that what it means to be a scientific doctor is to bring to bear the maximum amount of technology on any given patient. And this makes them dangerous. In fact, if you look at scientific studies of birth, you find over and over again that many technological interventions increase risk to the mother and child rather than decreasing it.”

Add in the fact that you’re frequently scared to death as a med student and find technology a comfortable/comforting suit of armor to wear, and it’s not surprising that young doctors often live in fear of normal childbirth. I know…I was there. It only takes one bad outcome to make an aggressive approach look attractive, particularly when that’s the medical culture in which you’re being educated.

Dreger’s article is all the more interesting because she’s a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and her husband is an academic internist–not exactly the stereotype (e.g., the “woman who wears long cotton skirts, braids her hair, eats only organic vegan food, does yoga, and maybe drives a VW microbus,” as Dreger puts it) associated with midwifery and low-intervention births. But when Dreger and her husband did an extensive review of the scientific childbirth literature in 2000 and found that it supported just that–a low-intervention approach–they put what they learned into practice with the birth of their own child.

There’s a place for technology in childbirth, certainly, but most pregnancies don’t need nearly as much of it as they get in the U.S. these days.

Have a read–it’s a great article.

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4 Comments

Filed under Cesareans, Maternal-child health, Natural childbirth, Science

4 responses to ““The Most Scientific Birth Is Often the Least Technological Birth”

  1. Well stated. I too am unlearning some of my “hospital routine” lessons!

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  2. I read that article some days back and thought it interesting too but reading some of the comments that followed was scary (those disagreeing). There were some really extreme views coming through and quite alien to how maternity care is viewed in Europe.

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    • You’re right–many of the comments following both the Dreger and Wolfberg essays are depressing examples of how polarized the subject is. Lots of scare stories and “you’re an idiot/no, you’re the idiot” exchanges – you know, the kind of arguments most of us left behind in middle school. Fortunately there are a number of grownups working to make real progress in this area (see my posts on the Home Birth Consensus Summit here and here). The goal is to make childbirth as safe as possible for all women and babies; turf wars and pseudo-science only increase the risk for everyone.
      Thanks for writing!
      Mark Sloan

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  3. Pingback: The Birth Wars (Part 2) « thepassionatemoderate

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