Now that Ricki Lake made it seem empowering and supermodels made it seem chic, home births are experiencing a spike in popularity. But a second look at a previous study—that is often used by home birth advocates to support their claims that the practice is just as safe as hospital births—reveals that the perinatal death rate for home births was almost three times higher than that of low-risk hospital births.
The incidences of home births have increased by about 30 percent since 2004. But it's troubling that there are very few studies that give some definitive statistics about its safety. As the Daily Beast points out:
There's no central registry of home birth deaths, and the studies that exist are mired in controversy. It's clear that some parents have lost babies during home births that could have been saved had they been in a hospital. Whether that means that the risk of home birth is significant depends on which experts you listen to.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, for instance, maintains that home birth is more dangerous than hospital birth, but admits that "high-quality evidence to inform this debate is limited." Home birthing advocates like to cite a 2005 study by Kenneth C. Johnson and his wife, Betty-Anne Daviss, a home birth midwife. They found that there was no difference in the mortality rate of the 5,418 North American women who planned home births in 2000, as compared to low-risk hospital births. However, the death rates of hospital births used for the comparison were taken from date from the 1970s and 1980s. When compared to hospital births in 2000 from the National Center for Health Statistics, the perinatal death rate for home births was nearly three times higher.
With few hard studies being available, anecdotal evidence seems to be the most powerful for pregnant woman. The Business of Being Born, Ricki Lake's documentary about home birth, insinuates that home birth is more empowering and that women who receive medical intervention or C-sections do not bond as well with their babies, which can be a terrifying thought for expectant mothers.
Arguments against home birth can be found at the blog, Hurt by Homebirth, which chronicles first-person accounts of mothers whose babies died during, or shortly after delivery from complications that could've been easily remedied at a hospital. It's a heart-wrenching, difficult read, but enlightening at time when home births are almost exclusively presented in soft focus as a beautiful, natural, empowering experience. One woman, Sara, blames her son's death on her midwives' extreme dedication to home birth and aversion to medical intervention:
Our baby was 10lbs, 4 oz, far exceeding the 8.8lb maximum the research suggests as safe. His cord was wrapped twice around his neck, both factors likely why he couldn't turn into the correct position despite trying. I pushed for a total of 6 hours, almost 4 of which was without progress. The SOGC's research says that a woman should not be pushing for more that 60 minutes without progress with a breech baby before it's a sign of serious trouble. There were maneuvers that should have been performed in the heat of the moment that weren't even attempted…Our attention and effort turned toward accountability. We felt like we had been used as guinea pigs, as part of someone's experiment meant to advance their own agenda, meant to make a statement politically.
We feel so much like this is fraudulent behavior, that they use the professional façade of a business to lure people into feeling comfortable, pretending to have requisite skills that they do not have. We had no understanding of their extremist views and how they would influence our care in the midst of crisis.
Our midwives made a conscious decision to take a risk with our baby's life, to adhere to their own philosophy with blatant disregard for our safety, to lie to protect themselves, and then to sell us the regurgitated line, that "some babies aren't meant to live." They hoped we would disappear under the rug of silence and sorrow as many families do. I was screaming inside a glass bottle where no one could hear. We will not be silent.
Giving birth in a hospital instead of at home is actually a relatively new development that didn't become standard until the 20th century. For the past few decades, the philosophy and ideals of home birth faced so much derision from the mainstream as being "wacky" that it makes sense that its advocates would have to be firmly ensconced in their beliefs—home birth has to be their "agenda." Additionally, labor can be so scary for first-time moms that they might need someone to talk them down from a total freak out, and give them a pep talk about their own abilities. If a midwife is doing this at a home birth, that could easily be confused for "advancing their own agenda."
Ultimately, while home births are undoubtedly empowering for those who have had positive experiences, women who question the safety of a particular birthing option should not be made to feel as though they are weak or ignorant chumps who've been conned by the medical profession. A call for more studies on home births does not equate to doubting the amazing capabilities of the female body. After all, what's more empowering than being completely educated when making a choice?
Image by Cigdem Sean Cooper /Shutterstock.