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Birth, The Final Frontier Of Spectator Sport?

Birth, The Final Frontier Of Spectator Sport?


By Barbara Sumner Burstyn

You’re in the last weeks of your pregnancy and the pressure is on; finish up at work, get the baby’s room ready and all that stuff you have to buy. Oh and draw up your labour party plan, complete with seating arrangements, menus and guest lists.

The New York Times spotted it first. The headline ‘Move Over, Doc, the Guests Can't See the Baby,’ trumpeted the benefits and downsides of labour parties. “Like bridesmaids and pallbearers,” the article said, “invitees are marked as an honored group of intimates.”

Birth as a social event is not a new concept. In many cultures women surround birthing women, but what is different now is the context. Fielding midwife Vanessa Jackson comments that by choosing this path women are leading towards inevitable intervention. “This may sanitise the process and transform it into a performance art as if it were a type of theatre sport, but it creates a massive disconnect between the woman and the experience she is having.”

Certainly that disconnect is now common as our individual and societal experience of conception increasingly involves surgical procedures, powerful drugs and sperm and fertility counts. Perhaps it’s to be expected then that birth should also be removed from the sphere of intimacy and placed in the semi-public domain of just another medical procedure.

Certainly the medical profession has embraced the trend. In the United States, hospitals, keen to keep their clients happy are creating birthing rooms complete with guest seating. While it is perhaps another sign of the industry’s increasing need to convince us that medicine can and does control even nature, if you’ve ever given birth in a natural, non-medical way (the kind where you make the decision to eschew all medical intervention, except in an emergency) you’ll know that this new fad is crap.

Birth is messy and noisy, for long hours it is monotonous and often involves a type of extreme nudity that most of us would rather not think about. And you can’t escape it. Birth is relentless. It bears down on you, invading every private space you ever thought you had. It is a complete experience. Nothing else in life is so total, so inexorable. And the end result is so much more than a baby. It is the knowledge of true power. You don’t so much as face down the pain as you learn to work with it, you learn to trust yourself and your body in a profound way, transcending, for those hours, the everyday reality of an ordinary life.

Of course if you opt for pain relief for your normal birth, for a medically mediated experience, then you miss out on all this. Instead you get just another experience, a roller coaster for sure, but like a real roller coaster some part of you knows its not for real, that there’s a back door, a way out of the darkness that can descend over labour. And you get the kind of birth experience that makes you little more than a spectator on your own reality show, an experience others can share, that makes for good entertainment; a little blood, a little drama, a whiff of life or death edginess, a taste of medical marvels, an orchestrated ER experience for your family and friends.

Our expectations of birth, the demand for the experience-free experience and our collective unwillingness to step outside our comfort zone is becoming so entrenched that last year the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists endorsed elective c-sections for normal pregnancies. In Canada, New Zealand and the US C-section rates have soared in the last ten years to account for almost a quarter of all births. The WHO says that any country with a rate above 15 percent should be looking at reasons why.

And we're not talking emergency situation here. Switch to the E channel and you’ll see trailer-park tart Britney Spears or triple-caesar veteran Victoria Beckham or any number of other too-posh-to-push ‘stars’ extolling the ease of C’s. Afterall, why go through all that pain, risk incontinence, constipation and, quelle horreur, stretched muscles down below, when science offers an alternative.

But even for ordinary women, normal birth may be a thing of some pre-medical past. In Canada, despite universal medical care and world class maternity services, a just released study of 2.6 million birth records shows that some of the most serious illnesses of pregnancy and childbirth are increasing, with potentially fatal complications during birth afflicting one in every 250 deliveries. While in New Zealand a report released in 2002 declared that there are fewer normal births in the country and rate of interventions during labour was high compared with past statistics. Jackson comments that the term ‘normal’ is no longer relevant. She estimates that way fewer than 50 percent of first time mothers get to experience truly normal birth. And she adds that the impact of a baby’s first moments being drenched in powerful narcotics does not seem to worry anyone.

Ultimately all the new trends in birth culture add up to the colonizing of birth, the rolling up of perhaps the most marvellous, scary, painful and exhilarating thing a woman can do into a neat and tidy spectator sport to be consumed as entertainment. In a world that seeks to separate us from ourselves, to turn every nature walk into a communion with an iPod or a cell phone, where intimacy is increasingly a parody of how they do it in the movies, it’s hard to find a place of true challenge, a place that cracks open our muffled, consumptive experience of life. This is why labour parties and elective or ignorant intervention are travesties.

Birth, coming soon to a theatre near you! Bring your friends! (R18) Refreshments provided!

*************

Barbara Sumner Burstyn © October 2005

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