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Stop With All the Dangerous Childbirth Stories Already
Joss Barratt / PBS

Stop With All the Dangerous Childbirth Stories Already


Jan 30 2013
Spoiler alert: Downton brings the drama.

The "death-in-childbirth" device also confirms an understanding of the female body as dangerous and diseased. Yes, women do face injury and sometimes death in the process of giving life, but that's the exception. Even when maternal mortality rates were many times what they are today, the vast majority of births ended well. One of the best pieces of documentary evidence available to us on childbirth in early America—the diary of midwife Martha Ballard of Maine (1785-1815)—lists just a single maternal death in nearly 2,000 births.

Of course, suspenseful plots depend on things going wrong. But does the drama always have to come from a woman's body malfunctioning in some way? Can't we get a little narrative confirmation for all the millions of times the body gets it exactly right? It's like all the movie plot lines centering around plane crashes, when all the while you're more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the airport. The dying-in-childbirth device exaggerates risk and unwittingly confirms, for many people, the need to give birth with a surgical crash-team in the next room.

That, for me, is the rub. Americans have great faith in the power of medical science, but lack faith in women's bodies to get the job done. Our fears are confirmed by the many fictional plotlines that kill off the mother to crank up the drama.

In reality, despite having some of the highest rates of medical induction and c-section in the world, and despite the fact that dying in childbirth is still a very remote possibility for most American women, rates of maternal mortality are higher today than they were in the late 1970s. American women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in Greece, and 40 other countries are ahead of the U.S. in terms of maternal health.

What's more, "near misses"—complications that nearly result in death—have increased 25 percent since 1998. Women who are poor, who are African American, who are Native American or who do not speak English are the ones most likely to die or to face grave complications. Some attribute these modern-day deaths and injuries to the overuse of medical technology. For example, a woman is as many as three times more likely to die from a caesarean.

Responding to rising maternal mortality doesn't mean advocating one kind of birth over another—it's a complicated problem requiring a multi-faceted solution. Still, with birth and new birth so near the heart of our faith narrative, Christians need to embrace maternal health, here and abroad, in real life and on our TV screens, as an issue of our common good.

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