Wednesday, 18 January 2012

#16 Freebirthing, Dude!

FACT OF THE DAY: It may sound like an high adrenaline sport, but freebirthing is actually a movement started in the USA encouraging women to give birth alone.

I was doing some reading about giving birth alone in non-western cultures and came across quite a few websites about freebirthing, (also sometimes called Unassisted Birth or even a Do-It-Yourself birth) about women in the west who give birth alone.

I had never heard of freebirthing before. These women decide to give birth at home, specifically choosing not to have any medical staff present, and often choose not even to have their husband or partner present.

I joke about it being like high adrenaline sport, but actually it turns out some women do equate it to an adrenaline rush – the ‘thrill of the catch’ as they grab their own baby on it’s way out.

To get a feeling for how common it is, (given that the advocates refer to it as a ‘movement’)the most up-to-date statistic I could find was that in 2004 in the USA 7,000 of the 4.1million babies born were ‘freebirthed’ – just a drop in the ocean.

Despite the small numbers involved, it seems to be one of those topics that generates an out of proportion amount of reaction and comment. There are heated debates between the advocates who say that freebirthing is safe and childbirth is not a disease that requires medical assistance, and the critics who say that it is dangerous and that medical support during childbirth is the factor that most influences the outcome.
You will see lots of photos like this if you search on Google for Freebirthing
It seems kind of illogical that here are women going through childbirth with arguably some of the best healthcare in the world at their fingertips but choose not to use it, yet in the non-western world many women have no access to any healthcare at all and often suffer enormously as a result.

In different cultures around the world the most common birthing scenario is the labouring mother being supported by other women, often older relatives who have been through birth themselves, and sometimes by a birthing specialist.

Some experts guess that women helping one another during childbirth was an important part of our evolution. As discussed in a previous post, childbirth is a challenge for us homo sapiens. Because of the large head/small hole situation, the baby twists as it comes out so it is normally born facing away from the mother, making it difficult for her to reach down and clear the it’s passage way or remove the cord from around it’s neck if needed. Nearly all cultures improve the chances of a safe delivery by having other people there to help. It could be argued that birthing alone ignores the advantages of being human and being able to help one another.

However, in a very few non-western cultures ‘unaccompanied birth’ is the cultural ideal. As a complete guess I would say that among the vast number of non-western cultures around the world, in less than 5% women are expected to give birth alone, often an ‘opportunity’ for the woman to demonstrate her strength and courage (not because they choose to).

Some examples of these cultures would be;

Bariba – one of the 42 ethnic groups living in the hot, humid Africa country of Benin, numbering half a million. Although nominally Muslim, the Bariba are in touch with their animistic beliefs (Benin is where voodoo religion comes from). Women are expected to give birth alone, and the extra element here is their belief in witch babies, which traditionally were killed at birth or given away as slaves (nowadays ‘neutralised’ ceremonially).Witch babies can be detected at the moment of birth by the following signs; a breech birth, if the baby slides onto it’s stomach not it’s back at birth, and a baby born with teeth. Giving birth alone may allow the mother to ignore these signs if she chooses. However it is not achieved by all - in a survey 14% of 120 first time mothers delivered alone, and 43% of 96 experienced mothers delivered alone.

Angagen – a very small group of just 1,000 living in isolated villages in the jungly, tropical and mountainous highlands of Papua New Guinea where they farm small plots of sweet potato, bananas, sugar cane and raise a few pigs. Outside of each village is an engi or ‘mother house’ which the women built themselves and use for rituals, menstruating and birthing. Traditionally a woman gave birth in the mother house having left some water (to clean herself and the baby) and a bamboo knife (to cut the cord) there in advance, and when the time came, she went to the hut and managed the birth on her own.

!Kung – These are hunter-gatherers living in the southern African savannah, and yes, these are the women who go into the bush alone to labour, normally in a squatting position. The ideal is that after birthing on her own, the mother cuts the cord and buries the placenta herself, before returning to the village with her newborn. These women have the added danger of hyenas and lions lurking, attracted by the bloody smells. An unspoken rationale for birthing alone is that it allows women in extreme circumstances to practice infanticide if the baby is deformed or if the age gap is so close to her existing child that she would be unable to support both. Again, not all women achieve this ideal, in one research study of 54 births, 57% were delivered alone.

There are of course more examples, but I’ll save those for another day. Many of the freebirthing websites refer to unassisted birth happening in other cultures, however, these few examples show that although unassisted birth might be the ideal, the reality is often different.

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If you would like to read more, have a look at;

Sargent, CF (1988) Born to die: Witchcraft and infanticide in Bariba cultureInternational Journal of Cultural and Social anthropology 27(1):79-95

Eds Davis-Floyd, Robbie E. And Sargent, Carolyn F. (1997) Childbirth and Authoritative Knowledge; Cross-cultural perspectives University of California Press : USA

Shostack, M (1983) Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman Random House

Just add water; remaking women through childbirth, Anganen, Southern Highlands, Papua New Guinea - Leanne Merrett-Balkos in Ed Kalpana Ram and Margaret Jolly (1998) Maternities and Modernities; Colonial and postcolonial experiences in Asia and the Pacific Cambridge University Press


  1. For more perspectives on the cultural/anthropological context of freebirthing, I highly recommend Rixa Freeze's PhD dissertation on unassisted birth in the U.S.:

  2. I think freebirthing is often midunderstood. It covers a wide spectrum. From those who refuse all medical help, no matter what happens, to those who "manage" their own births medically doing their own version of unnatural medical intervention. From those who trust birth so much that they would love to be out with the hyenas, to those who trust non-western medicine and have strong opinions about what herb to use next.
    Many freebirthers are grandmulitparas - have had over 5 kids. Many are gratefull for the advantage we have that makes their version of freebirth so accesible - having a hosp. and access to western medicine within minutes, should the situation arise. Some rent a house within 10 min. of a hosp., others rent a hotel room. Some rent a cabin to be farther away. All have different ideas of what an emergency is. Some only freebirth if everything is ideal to begin with. Some are their own midwives.
    There is a lot of faith involved with freebirth, but there is also a lot of common sense.
    Safety is so often sited as a reason to have a midwife or be in a hosp. What is overlooked, or more likely not even known by those who mention it, is that some of the complications they fear, are not going to be safe in a hosp. either. Many hosp. cannot perform a c-sec. immeadiately. Sometimes only the mother can assure a good outcome to a birth. When put in a situation like a hosp. where there is a false sense of security, she may not get the extra energy to save her childs life. Whereas on her own, the outcome is safer.
    Anyway, so much individual thoughts, research, ideas, go into each and every western UC, that it is hard to paint a broad picture of it. I think most people simply don't understand what they are forming an opinion on...