Traditionally, men have been encouraged to indulge their wives a little during pregnancy. There is a certain stereotype of the poor soul making the rounds of the 7-Elevens at some ungodly hour searching for a particular flavor of ice cream. And although husbands may not understand how a $40 haircut is going to get a woman through the ninth month, chances are most of them will find the forty bucks rather than ask her.

Pregnancy is emotional

For all the jokes about cravings and ravings, respect for motherhood has led people of both sexes to try to be sensitive and accommodating toward pregnant women. Pregnancy is a very emotional and physically demanding time in a woman’s life, a time when one feels an almost primordial link with women everywhere.

In our present society, the importance of childbirth has been largely ignored by those who presume to speak for women. Far more concerned with ridding themselves of the burden on childbirth, feminists have rarely addressed its life-giving joy, its power, and responsibility.

Attending to a woman’s needs and comforts has been largely politicized by more typical feminist ideological concerns such as a woman’s alleged right to give birth free of patriarchal constraints. The choices – whether to become pregnant – whether to stay pregnant – has carried over from the womb to the birthing room. The growing popularity of midwifery and home births stems from this feminist-centered approach to childbirth, often without due concern for the interest of the pre-born child. Of course, women have given birth at home from time immemorial, by choice or otherwise, but the current practice appears to have political overtones.

The Supreme Court’s Sullivan/Lemay decision denied that the pre-born child had any interest, legally, until it was fully emerged. The midwife could not be held responsible for the death of a child which, in the court’s eyes, had never lived. A recent case of neonatal morality in Quebec also raises questions about the wisdom of home births and the ideology which encourages them.

Home births

A Montreal coroner’s report, released in May, was highly critical of home births. Commenting on the death of a baby in November 1991, of neonatal asphyxiation, Coroner Claude Paquin said, “To give birth at home in Quebec is like jumping out of a plane with one parachute.” (Skydivers normally jump with two.) But Dr. Paquin stopped well short of citing negligence despite the incredible irresponsibility of both mother and midwife.

A woman who has a good history of childbirth could reasonably plan a home birth under the care of an experienced, certified nurse-midwife. In the Montreal case, however, the mother had previously delivered by caesarean section. Although this does not in itself preclude a subsequent vaginal delivery, it greatly increases the risks involved. To attempt delivery at home was beyond a reasonable risk. In his report, the coroner did not say the baby would have survived had he been born in a hospital, but that he would have had a much better chance.

Quebec does not recognize midwifery, and there is no regulation which directly addresses midwife-assisted home births, although changes to the law are expected. The midwife in this case was self-trained and had been involved in a similar tragedy just three years before.

But as is the case when feminists urge the “pro-choice” position on abortion, there are those who claim that midwives should continue to practice unregulated because women are thoughtful and they make responsible choices. They support the rights of the mother and the midwife, however reckless.

Hospital births can be terribly clinical and sterile. Most hospitals have come a long way in creating pleasant and comfortable surroundings for their maternity patients. In fairness, this has occurred largely because of pressure from feminists and other women. The hospital offers the greatest comfort of all, however, in that if a crisis occurs, the resources are available to cope with it immediately. For many people, even today, that is the difference between life and death.

The choices made regarding childbirth should be with the mother’s health and comfort in mind, but not without equal consideration for the child’s welfare. Neither patient has priority over the other. A good birth experience does not depend on soft sheets and flowered wallpaper. A good birth experience depends on the safe and timely arrival of a healthy child.

Regina Farrell is the mother of four and writes from Trois-Rivieres, Quebec.