This is a guest contribution from Katharine Hikel, MD. Dr. Hikel is a writer on women’s health for Medscape/WebMD. Peer-trained in feminist women’s health clinics, she is also a graduate of Harvard and the University of Vermont College of Medicine. She lives in northern Vermont with her family.
Birth Territory and Midwifery Guardianship: Theory for practice, education, and research.
Edited by Kathleen Fahy, Maralyn Foureur, Carolyn Hastie.
Butterworth Heinemann (Elsivier): Books for Midwives. 2008
The next vital revolution in maternity care may well be the overhaul and redesign of the birthplace. In “Birth Territory and Midwifery Guardianship,” writers describe the relationship of the birth setting to the emotional-physiological state of laboring women. In this regard, ‘Birth Territory’ encompasses not only physical space, but also personal relationships, power structures, and access to knowledge.
Maternity care as we know it has evolved along divergent roads: the midwifery, expectant-management ‘natural’ approach; and the obstetric, interventive, ‘actively-managed’ model. Midwifery care is a woman-centered approach; it relies on relationships which support women’s natural abilities to give birth. The obstetric model, designed by and for doctors, operates on principles of academic exclusiveness, described by Louis Menand:
It is a self-governing and largely closed community of practitioners who have an almost absolute power to determine the standards for entry, promotion, and dismissal in their fields. The discipline relies on the principle of disinterestedness, according to which the production of new knowledge is regulated by measuring it against existing scholarship through a process of peer review, rather than by the extent to which it meets the needs of interests external to the field…
[T]he most important function of the system is not the production of knowledge. It is the reproduction of the system. To put it another way, the most important function of the system, both for purposes of its continued survival and for purposes of controlling the market for its products, is the production of the producers
Academic obstetrics is impervious to knowledge and input from other disciplines; it exists in a closed, parallel world; it exists not for the purpose of taking care of women, but for the purpose of taking care of itself. The chief concern of any obstetrical unit is the viability of the department, of the program; if outcomes figure into that, well and good; but women’s actual experiences and opinions, because they are not part of the published literature, are of no concern. Small wonder, then, that so little thought has been given to the environment of hospital birth, other than for the convenience of hospital practitioners.
Meanwhile, midwives have continually concerned themselves with what the authors of Birth Territory and Midwifery Guardianship call ‘the elements in the geography, architecture, and metaphysics of birth spaces to which women will consciously and unconsciously respond.’
In their book, the writers – midwives, and an architect of birth spaces – asked women what they wanted in their birthing places. Responses included:
- A pleasant place to walk
- Sufficient pillows, floor mats, bean bags
- Availability of snacks and drinks
- En suite toilet, shower, bath; a birth pool
- Comfortable accommodations for companions and families
- A homey, non-clinical environment
- Control over temperature
- Control over brightness of light
- Privacy; not being overheard by others
- Not being watched
- Control over who comes into the room
The majority of birthing women surveyed did not have these options. The authors argue that lack of a woman-centered birthing environment, and little control over that environment, are reasons for high rates of obstetric intervention. Labor and birth are whole-being experiences; the autonomic nervous system will shut the whole process down if the woman perceives stress, threat, or danger. In typical hospital settings, with shift changes, strangers walking in and out, bright lights, confinement to bed and monitor, and restricted oral intake, it is no wonder that the process doesn’t go as smoothly as it could. “Failure to progress” – the diagnostic reason given for 50% or more cesareans – is largely an environmental issue.
Katharine Hikel, MD
Birth territory is also defined by relationships; yet medical obstetrics has constantly worked to sequester birthing women away from all sources of comfort, including non-medical practitioners; only in the 1960s were fathers and partners invited into hospital delivery rooms; and only lately, with the advent of doula practices, has one-to-one attendance – the cornerstone of midwifery – become recognized as a significant predictor of good outcome. But few hospital practices are relationship-centered. Prenatal visits are fifteen or twenty minutes long, mainly focused on weight gain and lab work. There’s usually a team of doctors and midwives; the person who’s available at the time of one’s birth is not a matter of preference, but of the practice’s call schedule.
Obstetrics is statistics-based, not relationship-based; obstetricians know that the average due date is 40 weeks from the last menstrual period; they know that if a woman is laboring (in a hospital) with waters broken for over 12 hours, her chance of infection skyrockets; they know that the Friedman labor curve shows that the average progression of dilation is one centimeter per hour; they know that the average pushing phase is under two hours. They are under pressure to make everyone fit those statistical norms, and they have the tools to make it so; and that’s what they do.
The best birth territory requires the best attendants. Fahy and her coauthors argue that birth is a reflection of relationships – with oneself, and with others; that relationships depend on love, and spiritual development (words you will never see in any obstetrical textbook). In developing the best birth attendants, they see open-heartedness as a requirement for good practice; they describe the characteristics of a good practitioner in Buddhist terms of ‘right relationship’: empathy; ethical behavior; self-awareness; capacity for love. In a chapter called “Reclaiming the sacred in birth,” they describe the conditions for nurturing ideal midwives: ‘to know and nurture themselves within their own families and communities,’ and emphasizes working on personal development, as well as clinical skills, with a supervisor or professional partner. The training environment of midwives should encourage the development of nurturing and intimate, though professional, relationships with her clients; it is that relationship that forms a necessary part of optimal birth territory.
The territory of obstetrics residents is largely devoid of patient-relationship considerations; it is rather consumed with concerns about on-call hours, clinical rotations, numbers of procedures, and one’s place in the departmental hierarchy. The knowledge itself is based in pathology – ‘problem-oriented’ – a diagnostic/treatment approach that assumes there’s trouble, and goes about finding it. This works well in the rest of medicine, which is really about disease; but colors the teaching approach to the normal, healthy event of childbirth. The knowledge that’s important – taught and practiced – is all within the limits of academic obstetrics, which ignores, if not devalues, ‘nonscientific’ knowledge. The ‘permitted’ knowledge supports what the authors call the ‘metanarrative’ of academic medicine: the postmodern myth that the safest and best place to give birth is under obstetric management. Any knowledge that counters that myth is disputed or ignored.
The history of obstetrics is also viewed differently from within the specialty than without. The obstetricians’ view, reproduced in most obstetrical textbooks, is the development of one intervention after another, all by men – from forceps to vacuum extractions. The authors present a larger-scale view:
Medicine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was composed almost entirely of men who shared the same power base as other dominant males: they were white, well-educated and from economically richer families. It was these males who owned or managed every institution of society: the army, the church, the law, the newspapers, the government, etc. These privileges, combined with an informal brotherhood of dominant men, created a powerful base for the success of the medical campaign to subordinate midwifery.
The authors describe the territory of hospital birth as disputed ground, where the biological requirements of birthing women are at odds with the design of institutions. They provide ample evidence about how the dominance of obstetricians’ needs over women’s welfare has contaminated the culture of birth. In a wonderful section on oxytocin – the hormone of love, bonding, social interaction, birth, and lactation – they describe the effects of this natural hormone:
[T]he higher the level of Oxytocin, the more calm and social the mother; thereby stress is reduced; levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop; pain threshold is increased… body temperature is regulated… and heart rate and blood pressure are lowered… Women’s response to stess may not be the automatic ‘fight or flight’ response seen in men, but is more likely to be the ‘calm and connection’ system integrated by Oxytocin.
These oxytocin-mediated events are most necessary during labor and birth; they are best enabled if the birth territory includes oxytocin-positive relationships. Oxytocin is thought to be the source of women’s power to endure labor and birth; and its pathways are the most likely to be deranged by the institutional birth environment – the lack of oxytocin-facilitating relationships of trust and love, as well as the routine administration of oxytocin-blocking drugs such as epidurals and Pitocin – a form of artificial oxytocin that has never been proven safe in long-term outcome studies. Blocking oxytocin, whether through fear, disturbance, or Pitocin, leads to disrupted or painfully difficult labors. These authors suggest that disruption of normal oxytocin pathways, and supplanting them with intrapartum Pitocin exposure, may also result in serious mental health problems on the love-and-relationship axis: schizophrenia, autism, drug dependency, suicidal tendencies, and antisocial criminal disorders. It’s not just the mother who’s affected by the birth territory.
But what is the best birth environment? In a chapter called “Mindbodyspririt architecture: Creating birth space,” architect Bianca Lepori describes her designs for hospital-based birth rooms that are meant to enhance, not counteract, women’s abilities to give birth. She created suites of rooms with “Space and freedom to move; to be able to move to the dance of labor; to respond to the inner movements of the baby; to walk, kneel, stretch, lie down, lean, squat, stand, and be still.” The rooms have “Soft and yielding surfaces; or firm and supportive surfaces; different textures; the right temperature; soft curves; darkness or dim light.” A birthing woman can be ‘immersed in water, flowing or still; respected, safe, protected, and loved.” Access to the suite is through an antechamber; the bed is farthest away from the lockable door, and not visible from it, so that privacy is respected.
Lepori’s birth architecture reproduces the comforts of home. There is access to the outdoors, and private walking places. There are birth stools, exercise balls, bean bags, hooks for hammocks or ropes for stretching. Tubs and beds are large and accessible from both sides. There are accommodations for families. There are comfortable chairs for nursing. Medical equipment – supplies, oxygen – is tucked behind a screen or put in a closet. A refrigerator and light cooking equipment is available. This ‘birth territory’ certainly outshines the typical hospital OB floor; though it begs the question: Why not just stay home?
The answer, of course, is that, for those four to ten percent of births that truly need intervention, the OR is right there. It’s better not to have to transport a woman whose labor has turned complicated; it makes sense – for many – to have all the birth territory under one roof.
This birthing-suite design indeed takes into account the all-encompassing, body-mind-spirit event of childbirth. It honors laboring, birthing women and families; it respects the process. It worked well for a designated maternity hospital in New Zealand – a facility already designed for childbearing. But most US hospitals are multi-use facilities; and though obstetrics is among the best money-makers for hospitals, childbirth is the only event that occurs there that is not related to illness or trauma.
The real question is, why not remove birth completely from the pathology-centered hospital model? Why not redesign birth territory to maximize best outcomes, minimize intervention, and replace the present medicalized view of birth as a disaster waiting to happen with the more normative, expectant-management, midwifery view? Move the whole shebang, from the waiting room to the surgical suite, out of the hospital and back into the community where it belongs.
Why not indeed. The major obstacle to any redesign of the territory of birth is resistance from the field of obstetrics. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (which recently changed its name from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, reflecting a major shift in interest from academics to politics) has a 23-member lobbying arm, “OB-GYNS for Women’s Health PAC”, which describes itself on its web site:
Ob-Gyns for Women’s Health and Ob-Gyn PAC help elect individuals to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate who support us on our most important issues. Individuals who understand the importance of our work, who care about the future of our specialty, who listen to our concerns, and who vote our way. In only a few short years, Ob-Gyn PAC has helped elect ob-gyns and other physicians to the U.S. Congress, and has become one of the largest and most influential physician PACs in America.
Only five of the 23 members are women; all ten of its board of directors are men. Current issues occupying the group are “Stopping Medicare payment cuts, ensuring performance measures work for our specialty, preserving in-office ultrasounds” (though there are still no long-term studies on the effects of ultrasound on the developing fetus, or on women, for that matter); and “winning medical liability reform,” which means limiting liability for malpractice.
Meanwhile, the Medicaid Birth Center Reimbursement Act – Senate Bill #S.1423 (House Bill HR 2358) – is not on the list of bills that ACOG supports, even though this expansion of birth territory would probably better outcomes, and certainly cost less than the hospital OB model.
The only bad thing about “Birth Territory and Midwifery Guardianship” is that obstetricians will not read it.