NYT: The Battle Over Home Births

This article is more than 9 years old.

Before Ricki Lake gave birth in her bathtub and before "Orgasmic Birth" was a top movie pic among the doula set, there was Ina May Gaskin, the earth-mother-high-priestess-venerated-goddess of natural childbirth.

This weekend, The New York Times discovers what proponents of home birth have known for decades: Ms. Gaskin, a self-taught midwife who launched her communal birthing center, The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee, with her husband Stephen in the 1970s, has helped deliver thousands of healthy babies without any medical help.

Gaskin's statistics are eye-popping: out of approximately 3,000 total births, The Farm's C-section rate is about 2 percent, The Times reports (compared to a more than 30% rate in the U.S.) and epidural anesthesia has been used only once. "Failure to progress," a frequent diagnosis for long-laboring moms in American hospitals (and often the trigger for a cascade of medical interventions, including C-sections) are virtually non-existent at The Farm. This less-medicalized approach is, once again, gaining momentum and Gaskin's ideals are increasingly going mainstream.

Samantha Shapiro writes:

Unmedicated home birth is being chosen by a growing minority of women. Between 2004 and 2009, giving birth at home increased 29 percent. Most of this rise is among white women. Recent pregnancy documentaries like “Pregnant in America,” “Orgasmic Birth” and “The Business of Being Born” — all of which feature Gaskin — present hospital birth as profoundly disempowering to women.

Shapiro weaves her own birth story into her profile of Gaskin. She wants a natural childbirth but in the end, with a failure to progress diagnosis, she ends up with a C-section. Her story concludes on a bittersweet note:

" is unfortunate that the choices and the rhetoric around birth — like many of the choices and rhetoric around motherhood in general — are so polarized. It should be possible both to have a baby in a place that doesn’t have financial and legal incentives to medicalize a low-risk pregnancy and to still have immediate access to top-level care if it’s needed. It shouldn’t be necessary to leave the medical establishment entirely to give birth vaginally to a breech baby or after a previous Caesarean. It should be possible both to acknowledge that something real was lost in the way my baby was born and to know that this loss is finite; there is not one pure route to authentic motherhood. Eight months with my son have offered ample evidence that there is not only one opportunity for joy.

This program aired on May 24, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Health Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for Bostonomix.