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Media Hype, and a Death After Home Birth

Rita Linnestad

You may have noticed the flurry of news coverage that followed Australian home birth advocate Caroline Lovell’s death on January 24th, last month; she went into cardiac arrest during the birth of her second daughter-- at home-- and was rushed to the hospital, where she passed the next day. While the actual cause of Lovell’s medical emergency hasn’t been directly linked to her labor-- and despite the fact that she actually died in a hospital-- the worldwide media maelstrom that followed overwhelmingly called the safety of home births into question.

Lovell had also delivered her first daughter at home-- also under the care of a private midwife-- and had called publicly for Australian health services to support home births, much in the way many other European countries do (women who opt for home birth in the UK, for example, are provided with a midwife by the National Health Service system). It should come as no surprise, then, that news outlets cashed in on the opportunity to exploit the unfortunate circumstances of her death, whether it was only coincidentally linked to her labor and delivery or not. Home birth, although re-emerging in the United States and elsewhere as an increasingly popular choice among low-risk pregnant moms, remains a divisive topic (as per the comments on this post). This is understandable; childbirth is a totally natural, usually fine, but relatively risky endeavor. I’ve actually seen a number of (also super sad) accounts of moms dying during hospital deliveries-- though no one questions the hospital part afterward-- in the past year, and thanked my lucky stars I didn’t see those stories before giving birth myself. Childbirth gone wrong stories are scary! So when a mom dies during home birth-- especially a mom who espoused its upsides and went against the grain in choosing to birth her babies this way-- it’s easy, and tempting, for people to point the finger and blame home birth itself for something so unnerving as a mom dying the day after her daughter was born. It’s an easy out.

Yes, Lovell’s death can be spun to validate the question, “What about emergencies?” that heads up one side of the home birth debate. Yet countries in which home births are the mainstream still boast some of the lowest mom and infant death rates worldwide. And people do still die in hospitals, amid stark white walls, whirring machines and illusions of fail-proof safety. Obviously, giving birth in a barn without a midwife or emergency services nearby would be a bad idea; but giving birth in a hospital bed brings with it no guarantees. Of course, people still give birth (and drive cars and ride in airplanes-- activities which can also kill you) every day. People also die every day. Everyone dies eventually, somehow. And everyone lives knowing this, but still living as true to themselves as they can. Whatever one’s own feelings about home versus hospital birth, it’s pretty clear that Lovell knew what mattered to her, and touched many people in powerfully positive ways by sharing that spark; turning her death into ammunition against her cause is a pretty distasteful maneuver. I think it’s important that we recognize the news outlets’ noise for what it is: sensationalism around an already-hot topic. Let’s not get caught up in that spin based on our own (entirely human) fears of death and disaster.

So, what about emergencies? I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last year or so, since my kiddo is vulnerable to emergencies (due to lots of severe food allergies). Here’s what I’ve come up with: let’s be prepared, but not fearful. Let’s wear our seat belts. Let’s do our research and make whatever choices feel best to each of us, as individuals. When it comes to childbirth, let’s offer strength, support and bravery to women who are having babies-- wherever they’re having them-- knowing from our own experiences what a life-changing, life-giving and sometimes, though not usually, life-threatening thing that is to do. (Though don’t mention the life-threatening part, rare as it is, to moms-to-be. Not cool). Moms may differ in their opinions on birth (and parenting) practices, but what we all have in common is that we do these things out of love. That may not make a big noise on the news front, but it’s the bottom line.

Did Lovell’s death change your perception of home birth? Have any of you experienced emergencies during labor or delivery? Any home birth turned hospital births in the audience? (I have several friends who went from birthing centers to hospitals mid-labor, due to complications. All of their babies-- and the moms, too-- are fine). Do you agree that the media made too much of Lovell’s death? Feel free to disagree! I look forward to reading your thoughts.