March 2010


No, this is not another satirical post.  I’m serious.

The other night, against my better judgment, I watched the Discovery “Health” episode on freebirthing (unassisted childbirth/UC).  Every time they showed a woman freebirthing, they listed three things this woman was going without: hospital technology, professional assistance, and pain relief.  I found the last almost comical, not only because it doesn’t seem to rate the same priority as the other two (so far I haven’t heard of even the most ill-informed practitioner saying “You can’t go without pain relief or you and your baby will die”), but also because it was patently irrelevant to the woman being filmed.  It’s hard to take a narrator seriously when she sounds shocked and slightly disgusted that a woman has been in labor for TWO HOURS without pain relief–and the woman is lying in a tub of warm water, calm, happy, and reaching between her legs and cooing “Oooh, the baby’s coming, I feel a tuft of hair!”

What really bugged me, though, was the huge assumption that pharmaceuticals are the only source of pain relief.  This in a nutshell is why I ignore most mainstream media on any topic.  If I can even get past the assumptions that are based on some agenda I probably don’t share, there’s usually little information of value left over.

These women were not forgoing pain relief.  All of them were in a tub of warm water at one point or another.  All of them writhed, vocalized, and chose the position that was most comfortable.  All of them had another person there to support them unequivocally and tell them they could do it.  What these women, and every woman who decides on an unmedicated birth, are forgoing is the physical and emotional complications that are often caused by pharmaceutical methods of pain relief–the only pain relief methods, I might add, that typically detract from rather than promote the process of normal birth.

So, back to my title.  No woman should be expected to give birth without pain relief.  However, just because it doesn’t come in a needle or a pill doesn’t mean it’s not pain relief–as long as we recognize that pain relief should not mean total removal of sensation.  While comfort allows a woman to progress effectively through labor and birth, total lack of sensation often does not; hence the more forthright term “comfort measures.”  And there is an unending list, limited only by your preferences and imagination, of supportive and labor-promoting comfort measures: walking, rocking, hydrotherapy (laboring in water), hypno-birthing, continuous support, aromatherapy, massage, and upright positions for birth are just a few.  What are your favorites?

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I’ve heard the argument that formula companies should be legally prohibited from advertising, or should be restricted in the way they advertise. The argument is generally something along the lines that an uneducated, poor mother is too vulnerable to images of happy, healthy babies and statements that Formula XYZ is the healthy choice for her baby.

I have two responses to the stance that formula (or drug, or tobacco, or other unpopular) companies should be prohibited from advertising.  The first addresses the legal and logical standing of the argument, and the second addresses the social premises of the argument.

Legality and logic) Restrictions on tobacco company advertising have already set a dangerous precedent: if enough people claim and clamor that something is not healthful, we can restrict its sale and marketing.  FDA restrictions on herbal remedy descriptions are perhaps a more close-to-home example of the pharmaceutical lobby restricting supplement companies’ free speech (and thereby consumers’ access to information).  Note that I am NOT arguing against the overwhelming evidence that tobacco use is harmful.  I am arguing that the precedent is dangerous because ACOG can skew evidence to say that home birth is dangerous, and formula companies could even argue (however disingenuously) that breastfeeding is dangerous because rates of jaundice are higher in breastfed babies and parents can’t tell exactly how much their babies are eating.  The door is already open: sweetener manufacturers have influenced the FDA to restrict (in violation of their own guidelines to exempt foods that were in established use) the labeling and sale of stevia.

To say that health-conscious people’s fervent conviction that formula is inferior to breastmilk gives them the right to restrict the speech of formula companies, is to say that ACOG’s fervent conviction that home birth is more dangerous than hospital birth gives them the right to restrict the speech of homebirth midwives.

Social premises) Let’s dispense with the “poor, uneducated person” fallacy already.  If Abraham Lincoln and thousands of other pioneers could educate themselves in law, economics, agriculture, and architecture, despite limited access to books and the constant physical demands of life on the frontier, then the average and even below-average American woman today, with access to libraries, the internet (via those libraries), extremely cheap books for sale, and organizations like La Leche League, can figure out that breastfeeding is of benefit to herself and her baby.

And if somehow the average American today is unaware that a company selling formula is of course going to tell her that formula is good stuff, and that she had better figure out the truth for herself; then let us ask ourselves what has changed since the days of the pioneers, when it was a matter of American pride to think for one’s self.  Could it be a generation or two of welfare, public education, public safety regulations, and other nanny-state interventions that have taught the “poor and uneducated” that they do not need to think for themselves?  How are we doing humanity a favor by continuing down this path of actively discouraging people from reaching for their potential by telling them “there’s no need to think or make your own decisions–the government is here to protect you and take care of you”?  Treating our citizens like children, no matter how low their current circumstances, is inhuman and inhumane.  It restricts their growth, twists their self-image into a mockery of human self-esteem, and thereby reinforces the same class structures that we so righteously claim to wish to eradicate.

To summarize: restricting the speech of one group in order to protect another is unjust to both parties, and any argument we present in its defense will only return to bite us when we seek to express our own views that may not be popular with others.  Let formula companies, surgeons, pharmaceutical companies, breastfeeding advocates, mother-friendly advocates, and vaccine safety organizations all vie for the attention of the American mother.  Don’t deny her access to a viewpoint in the name of “protecting” her.  She is smart enough to decide for herself–and the more deciding for herself she does, the better and more confident she will get at it and at teaching it to her children.

Now that would be progressive.