Sept 20, 2002
Who's Having This Baby?
A Calvin College professor is part of a new book that urges fundamental changes to the way women give birth. Helen Sterk, a communication professor, shaped and shepherded the book to publication. She conducted the interviews upon which the book is based, brought in the co-authors and wrote a chapter plus the introduction and conclusion.
She says many women, even years after having given birth, asked only to be seen as partners in the process of giving birth, rather than as patients. Their memories of birth were often negative, often because they felt like onlookers rather than participants.
"We urge," Sterk says, "that women be listened to. Birthing care should defer to women. They are the ones doing the hard, unusual and important work. They are the ones who have unique access to their own experience of labor. And they are the ones who will be in relationship with that child once she or he is born. These are weighty reasons to place women at the center of attention in the situation of birth."
Sterk says birthing should involve the least use of technology that still ensures the safety of the mother and child.
"Technology," she says, "is becoming its own reason for being to the detriment of women and not to the significant betterment of healthy babies."
To make the case the book provides a new set of reasons: women's own stories, their narratives. Says Sterk: "Narratives provide a kind of moral reasoning. They provide wisdom about human life. They show us actions people take and the consequences of those actions."
To tell women's stories the book draws on a project Sterk has overseen for the last decade, an archive called The Birthing Project. It contains over a hundred birthing stories, the result of interviews Sterk either conducted or supervised. Thus "Who's Having This Baby?" is a book about birth that is told from the perspective of mothers, not, says Sterk, "from the point of view of medical personnel or fathers or even the baby."
And what do mothers think about birth?
"Very simply put," says Sterk, "women often feel themselves harmed emotionally, psychologically, socially and spiritually by birthing practices that are unnecessarily invasive."
To counter this the book suggests some changes, including more insurance coverage for midwifery; more options for where to have a baby (including birthing centers or home); minimal use of technology, drugs and invasive procedures; and the routine use of doulas (a woman whose job includes talking with and touching laboring women).
"In summary," says Sterk, "we endorse labor and delivery care that take its cue from women. Currently the rhetoric of birthing puts babies and their safety at the center. This masks the reality that dcotors and medical protocol are at the center of birthing. A rich, meaningful experience of birth will be made possible when the birthing unit of mother and baby takes central position in all decision making."
The book contains five chapters and each looks at a different area of birth. Carla Hay, a historian at Marquette, looks at the history of childbirth. Krista Ratcliffe, an English professor at Marquette, examines a literary perspective on birth. Sterk looks at birth in terms of communication, especially at how communication often becomes about control and not care. Alice Beck Kehoe, an anthropology professor at Marquette, writes about birth on Native American reservations and Leona VandeVusse, director of the Nurse-Midwifery program at Marquette, gives testimony to the role of the nurse-midwife in birth.