In another case of the disappearing agent, Australian newspapers have been breathlessly reporting the amazing case of an intrepid Australian doctor “performing” the delivery of a healthy baby with nothing but a first aid kit and an oxygen mask – high in the air between Auckland and Santiago.
An Australian obstetrician has taken her professional skills to new heights by helping a Brazilian woman – who didn’t even known she was pregnant – give birth in a plane flying high above the Pacific Ocean during a flight from Auckland to Santiago.
Luckily for the baby and her mum, Dr Jenny Cook from Adelaide’s Flinders Medical Centre was on board the flight, and managed to deliver the baby girl with only a basic first-aid kit and an emergency oxygen mask on hand.
Dr Cook, 37, confirmed the baby was in the breech position, which often requires a caesarean delivery.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen – if the baby was going to breathe, if the mother was going to bleed. And if I had to make any cuts to get the baby out, were they going to give me a plastic knife?” Dr Cook told News Limited.
She had to perform the delivery next to the toilets and meal preparation area, where blankets were spread on the ground and the curtains were drawn.
As the other passengers slept, oblivious to what was going on, four stunned crew members watched as Dr Cook guided baby – who Aline named Barbara – into the world in minutes.
The mother is nearly invisible in this story – reduced to a silly stereotype of the oblivious woman who didn’t even know she was pregnant. This stereotype is usually associated with classist disparagement, but I think this time there’s more than a whiff of racism in the mix. After the first paragraph, however, she fades into the background, replaced by the superhero doctor who “performed” the delivery and “guided” the baby into the world single-handed. The papers made much of the doctor being thanked with bottles of French champagne and a smooch from an airline pilot. (Ew.)
Headlines from other papers included these gems:
Mid-air delivery for Australian doctor
This reporting was also poorly informed, in that breech birth doesn’t “often require a caesarean delivery”. Even in the Term Breech Trial, with the selection criteria ignored and the bases loaded against competent assistance with non-interventionist birthing, a re-analyses of the data show that routine caesarean section for breech presentations doesn’t make a difference to neonatal mortality – IF the baby is normal and the obstetricians keep their hands off, refraining from induction and augmentation of labour. Yet this study has been used all over the world to justify the routine coercion of women into major abdominal surgery with the “dead baby threat”. A group in Canada even made a case for routinely cutting babies out of their mothers on economic rationalist grounds.
And now, obstetricians who advocate “vaginal bypass surgery” for completely normal pregnancies are no longer considered the lunatic fringe. The undisputed risks to mothers as well as to babies from this approach are being glossed over. Even routine, supposedly “safe” caesarian section entail a higher maternal mortality, and future pregnancies carry a higher risk of severe complications such as ectopic pregnancy, stillbirth, placenta accreta, and emergency hysterectomy. Because the mothers are invisible, the importance of maternal consequences from surgery recede. Birthing is becoming a compulsorily technologised, mediated procedure, an event between obstetrician and baby; the ideal mother, in this model, is a still, supine, anaesthetised body.
The “dead baby” coercion card is played before birth to quell questions, and after birth, women’s voices are silenced with the “live baby” card: “You left hospital with a healthy baby, didn’t you? How dare you complain about your horrendous birthing trauma!”
This led me to a bit of reflection on obstetrics teaching over the past half century.
My Dad was taught obstetrics by a tutor who would kick back in tutorial discussions and say “But, Dr H, you’re out under the banyan tree with this woman. What do you do NOW?” He used the “banyan tree” as a non-technologised hypothetical location to get medical students to think about birthing without a scalpel in their hands and an anaesthetist at their shoulders.
Moving on to the 1980s, I was taught undergraduate obstetrics by a tutor who emphasised the joys of assisting with “low risk” pregnancies and births, the wonders of normal birthing, and how to be as hands-off as humanly possible. “Masterly inactivity”, they called it, even in classfuls of women. I guess we were about to get our Bachelors degrees and our Fellowships, we might as well be obstetric Masters also.
By the time I got to an OB residency, things were changing. The Dublin protocols of rigid intrapartum management were enforced, with partograms (graphs of cervical dilation over time) and scheduled vaginal examinations and artificial membrane rupture procedures and early augmentation with oxytocin being the norm, not the exception. The labor ward had to be efficiently managed, not just supportive and there for emergencies. On the partogram, a woman became a disembodied cervix, classified into acceptable and unacceptable dilated rates, judged on the basis of numerical performance. We vacuumed out babies who were a bit slow in second stage, with episiotomies for all vacuum deliveries and for a fair few “non-assisted” deliveries.Our epidural rate was quite low by today’s standards, and our C section rate was somewhere around twenty percent, again a bit lower than today. I don’t recall C sections being pushed for hypothetical “big baby” diagnoses; I remember seeing a women birth a 12-pound baby vaginally. We offered vaginal delivery for some breech, twin and VBAC (Vaginal Birth After Caesarian) mums, but only after screening for the lowest risk level; all others were pushed to C section. The language was obstetrician-centric; we talking about “allowing trials of labour”, not about mothers birthing babies.
But now? Just about every mother not experiencing the lowest of low risk pregnancies is pushed toward caesarian section in the first instance, or into artificial induction of labour if they demur, starting the cascade of interventions. For those who manage to go into labour, epidurals are done early and done often, incapacitating continuous electronic fetal monitoring is used, and babies are cut out at the slightest provocation. Labour wards are infused with danger, risk, fear and adrenaline (the enemy of normal, physiological labour). Adrenaline suppresses the oxytocin release essential for normal contractions, so oxytocin is supplemented via an IV, and cranked as high as it will go. And when this all fails to result in a baby emerging within a set time period, a doctor swoops in and “saves the day”. With C section rates edging up above 30% and episiotomy rates above 20%, this means that half or more of all mothers are subjected to a surgical birth by obstetricians. Women have been thoroughly colonised by technologised obstetrics.
And there is a giant private/public hospital divide in intervention rates, not accounted for by obstetric risk factors. If a non-governmental payer is involved, C sections skyrocket as high as fifty percent, and episiotomy rates jump by 50% or so also. We’re paying to get our vaginas cut open – even though episiotomy is associated with higher risks of posterior perineal and anal trauma, more sutures, and slower healing, and offer no improvements to incontinence or dyspareunia rates. The only advantage of episiotomy is that it is a little quicker and easier for a doctor to sew it back up. Only if you ignore the woman can episiotomy be considered a useful procedure.
How is this absurdly high private C section rate justified? Choice politics.This C section propaganda piece on a large mainstream medical “information” site opens with the quote: “I believe that we live in a civilised society and, as a woman living in a civilised society, I have choices.’ The quotes continue:
Even before I fell pregnant, I always felt that I’d rather have a Caesarean because the normal birth process was too painful for me to contemplate. I liked the idea that you could book in on a certain day, you would know what to expect, and there would be no surprises or agonising pain for hours or days on end. It all seemed very civilised to me. […]
“I know some people are horrified by my decision but for me it was a case of making choices that are right for the individual. I live in a civilised Western country and, in today’s society, I can be in control of what happens to my body. I feel I chose the civilised option.’
And while the obstetric industry is paying lip service to maternal choice of delivery method, this only applies so long as that choice is C section. The President of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is on record telling outright lies in support of routine “maternal-choice” C section on Good Morning America. ACOG has released a formal opinion supporting “a woman’s choice” of C section for no medical indication. And yet – the obstetric-industrial complex does not support a woman’s choice to birth vaginally, and they do not support a woman’s choice to birth at home. Choice is a one-way street.
Rosanna Capolingua, the new Australian AMA President, stormed into office this month hot on the heels of national press on her anti-choice stance on homebirth. The Western Australian government has responded to people’s calls for an increase in funding for the spectacularly successful and well-run Community Midwifery Program, and the AMA is running scared. And at the centre of Capolingua’s hand-wringing? She is worried that offering a choice of birth location, competently assisted by registered midwives, will make mothers who choose hospital birth feel guilty. Run that by me again – having a choice of safe, competently-attended birth locations will make mothers feel guilty, so we should not offer it? Capolingua goes on to misquote an obsolete, discredited study on homebirth, one in which the attendants were not even required to be certified midwives. She carefully ignores this study demonstrating the safety of homebirth where the homebirth attendants are certified professional midwives.
Offering choices involves relinquishing a bit of control, and bringing women back into the picture. Masterly inactivity doesn’t pay well. It’s not a predictable workload. You don’t get to use the gadgets, the machine that goes ping. You don’t get to sweep in and claim you “Saved the baby’s life!” once every two or three deliveries. You have to watch, to wait. You have to step out of the spotlight and let someone else, a woman, a mother, take the credit.