Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Enough Airy-Fairy Mysticism: Issues Surrounding Childbirth Should Be Tackled Practically

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Enough Airy-Fairy Mysticism: Issues Surrounding Childbirth Should Be Tackled Practically

Article excerpt

On Radio 4, a two-part series has begun called Battle for Birth (Wednesdays, 11am). The bitter power struggle between midwives and obstetricians throughout most of the 20th century is fascinating--not least because, until the closing decades of the century, it was essentially a battle between men (the doctors) and women (the midwives and their patients). It is also salutary to be reminded of how things used to be. In the 1920s, 25,000 women died in childbirth each year. In the first part of the series (7 February) a Paisley midwife described vividly how, in the 1950s, she would attend deliveries with pennies for the telephone box, in case she needed to call for help, and shillings for the gas meter, because some patients were too poor to keep the room warm.

Still, the series is not without problems. Rather than simply report the facts, it makes its agenda--however worthy--too obvious. The presenter, Penny Marshall, went in to bat against the medics, and soon had the president of the Royal College of Obstetricians admitting that, postwar, maternity wards resembled production lines, where women were unthinkingly forced to submit to unnecessary "routines" such as episiotomies. But given that he was unlikely to do otherwise--thinking has changed in the 40 years since--why did Marshall sound so shrill? And why did she repeatedly use the word "medicalised" in what was clearly a pejorative sense? The inference is that "natural" (that is, non-medicalised) is best. But this is not the case. Natural isn't always good (puerperal fever is natural), just as "medicalised" (pain relief, anyone?) isn't always bad. What women want, surely, is a combination of the two.

What annoyed me most of all, however, was the generalisations the programme made. Birth, we were told at the start, is "so defining for every woman". This is not quite right. Let's forget, for a moment, those women who can't, or won't, have children. …

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