The Washington Post recently discussed an interesting new development in health care – a rise in the percentage of women doing home births. That incidence increased 20% between 2004 and 2008, for a total of 28,357 of 4.2 million births in 2008.
Why the change? The Post attributes it to several factors. First, increased exposure to the idea through the media, such as a few television shows about midwifes. Another factor is the high cost of hospital births. One family noted that they spent $3,300 on their home birth, instead of $10,000 at the hospital. Some women cited the rise in unnecessary C-Sections. And many felt alienated by the increased medicalization of childbirth. The medical establishment has made a natural process feel unnatural by surrounding women with machines and drugs and pressuring them to give birth as quickly as possible.
Of course, the home birth is only popular in certain populations. One midwife describes the population as “well-educated and well-informed,” but it’s also very white. In 2008, 1 in 98 white women had babies at home. However, only 1 in 357 black women and 1 in 500 Hispanic women followed suit. I would imagine that issues of cost and leisure time are at play here. Many of the participants use midwifes, pediatricians, and/or nurses. While one family does note the lower price of a home birth, I could definitely see the costs adding up for others. And researching the issue and finding the right professionals may take leisure time that less privileged women do not have. For now, the home birth seems like a class privilege, although that may change if it grows more popular.
I am glad to hear that women are taking charge of their own health in this arena. Too often, our society questions whether women know best about their bodies. This is extremely visible in the abortion debate. However, it is also noticeable in areas like breast cancer screenings. In 2009, the government suggested that women do not need to be screened for breast cancer until the age of 50. They also suggested women be screened less often. However, many individuals would prefer to endure extra screenings to better prevent this disease. This is particularly common in those with a family history of the disease.
As these cases show, the medical establishment often helps to undermine women’s power over their bodies. I have noticed this on a more personal level lately, as a family member struggles with both cancer and her doctors. Her doctors accuse her of making the wrong decision when that decision disagrees with the doctor’s opinion. In some cases, a doctor may know more than the patient, but isn’t the patient’s agency important, too?
Our society exerts control over women’s bodies through the medical establishment, their sexuality, and their sense of bodily security. We also should not forget the importance of body image. All of these forces aim to keep women passive and powerless. Yet the members of this home birth movement are fighting back. For those of us who are not soon-to-be mothers, how can we join this inspiring revolution?