Freebirthing and why it is anything other than empowering

FreebirthingCC: Carlo Navarro at Unsplash

Freebirthing is a movement that has gathered a significant degree of attention recently. Rather than delving into the events that sparked said attention, it’s worth examining what the practice is and some of the reasons why it’s harmful.

As the name may (or may not) clearly suggest, freebirthing involves moving throughout your pregnancy and labor without any medical intervention. According to its proponents, this is one of the most empowering things a woman can do. Why? Because obstetrics is, supposedly, a patriarchal arm of medicine. And, on a level that completely ignores science, it’s apparently what women were designed for and is safer than giving a birth in a hospital.

For those who are on the fence and those who want a little more information, here’s why it isn’t empowering:

The freebirthing movement ignores maternal mortality rates

Around 830 women die in childbirth each day worldwide. According to the WHO, most of those women reside in countries where access to maternity care isn’t an option. Some of the leading causes of death include post-partum hemmhorage, sepsis, and obstructed labor.

In countries where basic midwifery services are introduced, the maternal mortality rates drop. Not only that, one study from 2013 has highlighted how the presence of a qualified birth attendant reduces the likelihood of a mother or her baby dying. The findings come from Sub-Saharan Africa, where maternal mortality is at its worst.

One ‘empowering’ line freebirth promotes like to repeat is that women need to trust their bodies. Disturbingly, many communities ban or remove comments that prompt laboring mothers to seek medical care. If having trust in what your body could do were to have a significant impact, surely the countries where no other approach is an option would fare better in maternal mortality rates? Especially versus those where hospitalized birth is the norm?

Listen to “RX411_episode3_"The Dangers of Freebirthing"” on Spreaker.

It also ignores evolutionary trade-offs

The human race has experienced many evolutionary trade-offs over the course of millions of years. One of the best examples is how we’ve adopted a bi-pedal stance that allowed us to evade predators. Our brains also increased in size, promoting larger skulls. A combination of those two factors meant that childbirth became inherently dangerous. When you couple larger skulls with narrower pelvises, you’re trading them for a painful birthing process that’s dangerous to both mother and baby.

While women can and do make it through pregnancy and labor without assistance if this were a common practice the reduction in infant and maternal mortality we’ve seen since the turn of the 20th century would never have happened. According to those who promote freebirthing, women are designed to give birth. Regardless of where you stand religiously, evolution tells a different story.

No, hospitals aren’t a more dangerous place to birth than home

One of the most comprehensive studies carried out into home births versus hospital births took place here in the UK. Known as The Birthplace Study it compared midwife-led homebirths in non-high-risk women with those that took place in hospitals. Overall, there were 7% more complications in the homebirth group.

Most startlingly, these births were supervised by midwives who undergo rigorous training. Their three-year degrees are science-based and promote safe practices. If those who graduate in such fields can’t promote safe birth at home amongst women whose maternal backgrounds they fully understand, how can someone who’s learning from a forum?

Unfortunately, the common freebirthing trope here would be that the home birth women featuring in the study exposed themselves to too many interventions. However, that doesn’t negate the statistical difference between the two groups.

As an area that lacks rational debate, freebirthing is a practice that’s lead by arrogance. Amongst those who blindly follow the advice that’s dished out behind closed doors somewhere on the Internet, there’s a lot of scope for harm.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.