There are many variations on the only thesis available to opponents of home birth: What do the statistics say? Despite the enticement of a warm, peaceful and private birth that a home birth offers, the perceived importance of missing technology lingers like impending doom. In America, less than 1% of births takes place in homes. It is difficult for the other 99% of Americans to make the transition from technology as the benchmark for establishing worldwide leadership to the reality that the human body is designed to give birth and it has evolved to make many variations in labor and birth look so easy.
The Stockholm Birth Center Study followed one birth center’s outcomes over a ten-year period culminating in 2000 and comparing the outcomes to the associated hospital’s birth outcomes. The one strong observation in this study is the truism that many women will choose a birth center because of the perceived safety in having a hospital nearby. However, it is a mistake to conclude the birth center is free of institutional intervention. The study’s results are negated because of the influence of the obstetrical backup. Every woman who chose the birth center for her birth location was still subjected to the institutional care package. This is the most influential determinant in whether or not a woman is “risked out” of laboring and ultimately delivering in the birth center.
A birth center so closely associated with a hospital is not autonomous and must operate under strict supervision by institutional birth practitioners. The authors themselves state they did not study the effect of individual labor and delivery protocols, but rather the care documented in each case as a “package.” In addition, they have correctly remarked standards of maternity care do not exist, but they have again missed the mark on the importance of this statement. This is critical to interpreting the outcomes, because one solitary intervention can turn out to be the predictor of a birth outcome. For example, every care provider practices according to their comfort level; although every care provider will monitor a baby’s heart tones in labor, how the monitoring is done varies by care provider. Continuous electronic fetal monitoring (EFM) can range in definition from ten minutes hooked up to a monitor every hour on the hour to a handheld doppler check through a contraction every few hours to a telemetry unit (a girdlelike band outfitted to wirelessly transmit fetal monitoring data) that allows the mother walk more freely.
The ability to walk freely even under continuous monitoring allows the mother greater mobility for finding a position that increases her ability to cope with her contractions. Setting aside the U.S. Preventative Service’s Task Force’s findings and stance that continuous fetal monitoring provides no benefit at all – and the data showing that continuous EFM results in more cesareans – it can be argued that fetal monitoring that limits a mother’s mobility is therefore more likely to result in more intervention as the mother shows signs of distress and therefore the baby does as well.
The authors of the Stockholm Birth Center study argue that many other studies have reached conclusions similar to theirs. In the same publication we are offered a Cochrane Systematic Review of Home-Like versus Conventional Institutional Settings for Birth. Here the reviewers concluded births in home-like settings compared to purely hospital settings “provided only modest benefits including reduced medical interventions and increased maternal satisfaction.”
A hasty read of this data by institutional birth practitioners correctly supports their ingrained training that routine intervention is acceptable and “safe.” However, the paper actually clearly demonstrates that all births taking place in a hospital are going to meet up with interventions at some point during labor, and it is the overuse of technology that needs to be analyzed. Indeed that message is there somewhat cryptically as the authors instead hinder the possibility of improving on the scope of research by advising “caregivers and clients should be vigilant for signs of complications.” It is difficult for any woman who has given birth or who respects her body to hear such little value placed on the differences the studies do reveal, such as the “modest benefits” of “reduced medical interventions” and “increased maternal satisfaction.” Surely even one avoided episiotomy would be appreciated by the woman whose perineum would have been cut and would find several women healing from receiving an unnecessary episiotomy envious.
In 1998, a study of infant mortality in planned home births was conducted in Australia. Author Hilda Bastion reviewed these outcomes as neither hospital nor home births have defined what constitutes standard care. She reviewed both midwives and medical practitioners, registered and unregistered, minimal experience and heavy case load. Also included in the study were births that would be deemed risky by virtue of poor health in the mothers or other underlying health conditions. This is crucial to understanding the bias of many hospital birth proponents: It is not the intent of home birth advocates to claim home birth is best for everyone, but rather a viable option for low-risk and otherwise healthy women. The author goes so far as to note it is a disturbing trend that midwives may be encouraging and willing to take high-risk births because of the high number of low birth-weight infants counted in the statistics. In fact, it is quite possible that a woman who cannot afford good nutrition may also not be able to afford hospital birth care, and perhaps a midwife is her better choice than no care at all.
In general, birth care is divided into either purely institutional care or modified institutional care. No research exists on pure, spontaneous vaginal birth over an intact perineum without induction agents, drugs, surgery and instruments. What is available is mounds of research on what a mother or baby can “tolerate” in labor and what interventions have achieved an acceptable degree of risk. The acceptable degree of risk is not defined by an independent counsel but often influenced by the strongest or loudest lobbying effort, as witnessed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ (ACOG) August 2007 statement on the advance of midwifery options for consumers. ACOG’s bottom line is midwifery options must be controlled and home birth as an option must be eliminated. The average consumer misses the bias and conflict of interest: A rise in home births means a decrease in income for a field already plagued by the reality that there is no money to be made in natural childbirth.
In addition to a lack of studies of organic birth as defined above, there are no long-term, randomized longitudinal studies to confirm or deny the correlation of many interventions. For example, the impact of a mother’s drug use in labor on emotional bonding, breast-feeding, postpartum depression, later drug abuse (baby as a young adult), etc. In the 1970s, Doris Haire, the President of the American Foundation for Maternal and Child Health, said, “No drug has been proven safe and effective for use during pregnancy or childbirth.” Considering that 25% of drugs introduced in the market today are recalled or pulled off the market in 1 to 5 years, this statement has never been more true. Until such time that midwifery care can be studied with a critical but appreciative eye, we will find only the weakest of studies boxed in by outdated beliefs that American women cannot afford to birth outside of a medical institution. In fact, it is our country that cannot afford to NOT offer free standing birth centers as a birth care option for American women.
Bastian, Hilda, “Perinatal Death Associated with Planned Home Birth in Australia Population Based Study”: BMJ 1998; 317: 384-8
Hodnett, E.D and S. Downe and N. Edwards and D. Walsh, “Selected Cochrane Systematic Reviews: Home-like versus Conventional Institutional Settings for Birth”; BIRTH Issue 32:2; June 2005
Waldenstrom, Ulla and Charlotta Grunewald, “The Safety of Birth Centers Responses to a
Critique of the Stockholm Birth Center Study”; BIRTH Issue 32:2; June 2005