March 24, 2011
For the record, midwifery, not prostitution, is the world’s oldest profession.
You’d think, then, that the ancient art of assisting at birth could get some respect. But, especially in the United States, the rights of birthing mothers to make decisions about their own bodies and have access to midwives continue to be trampled by the medical establishment.
And that’s dangerous. The maternal death rate is higher in the U.S. than in any other developed country.
In Birth Matters, pioneering midwife Ina May Gaskin explains why this crisis continues to deepen. Armed with excellent research, she shows how, in the first half of the 20th century, midwife skills were supplanted by a medical model that embraced new technologies and drugs, forced women to give birth in hospitals and fostered a climate of fear around the natural process of childbirth.
These, in turn, have led to a devastating rise in the number of Caesarian births. Epidural anaesthesia can prevent women from labouring with the intensity required; fetal monitoring can be scary (I turned the volume on the damn thing down because the irregular heartbeat, not at all unusual, was freaking me out); and fear can really slow down the birthing process.
Gaskin scatters personal birthing stories through the book, not all of them that interesting, though some are truly inspiring. She also has a habit of ending sections with banal comments like “This makes very angry” or “This is not acceptable.”
In Canada, we can take heart in the fact that, though there still aren’t enough midwives to meet the ever-increasing demand, they are much better integrated into our health system and, in general, universal health care makes women less vulnerable.
But the Manifesta itself, a call for a return to the age-old knowledge women have always had about our bodies and a movement to support it, is required reading.