The Best and Worst Places to Give Birth
For her book, Childbirth Across Cultures, my mother set out to see if other countries had figured out a better way to give birth. Instead she found that many countries have either adopted Western, medicalized births, or continue dangerous customs. It turns out a good birth is hard to find. Plus: Read about sweet and shocking birth traditions from around the world
Traditional Childbirth: Womanly Ways Aren’t Always Safe
Some 536,000 maternal deaths occur each year, 99% of them in developing countries. Childbirth in countries that haven’t modernized the birth experience is still very much women’s work, attended mostly by women who aren’t always trained in modern methods of hygiene. While the camaraderie of women in childbirth is commendable, even enviable, childbirth in these places can be oppressive, and many mothers are denied choices, or even harassed, during labor.
Nepalese women, for instance, are sometimes pressured to push the baby out before their bodies are ready. Hmong women must give birth alone, without expressing any pain or discomfort. Tibetan women often give birth in animal pens. If Bangladeshi women give birth in a hospital, they’re often berated by the staff and prevented from reciting religious verses that they traditionally use as a source of comfort and pain management.
Few developing countries have health insurance that covers the cost of childbirth; even if a poor woman wanted a safe birth in a medical facility, she probably couldn’t afford it, or even the cost of transportation to get there. Selin’s book reveals that in countries without good health insurance and without good medical facilities, hospital birth is not necessarily any safer than home birth; both arenas leave much to be desired.
The American Way of Birth: C-Sections as Status Births
While traditional childbirth in many cultures left much to be desired, my mother was just as surprised to find a second trend. Many cultures that had unique and non-medical approaches to birth even five or ten years ago have replicated American-style births. “The American way of birth is spreading around the world the way blue jeans and Coca-Cola have,” Selin writes. In more developed parts of Asia, especially, the tradition of home birth—attended by midwives and relatives—has either disappeared or is only engaged in by the poorest and most rural of women.
Almost all women in China, Japan and Korea now give birth in hospitals. In the more urbane parts of China, c-sections are considered highly desirable, a sign of status and wealth; some hospitals have c-section rates as high as 90%.