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Birth Choices: Panel Discussion at The Leonardo

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Last night I attended a discussion at The Leonardo, a museum in Salt Lake City.  This event was part of a series The Leonardo is doing about “Choices”.  The museum is currently hosting the Body Worlds exhibit and has chosen body related subjects for the discussion series in conjunction.  Last night the subject was choices and birth, here is the museum’s flyer:

Joe Andrade  PhD, a history professor, was supposed to talk about the history of birth (or something?), but he wandered off subject quite a bit.  He did mention that Brigham Young had sent women to medical school in Philadelphia so that they could care for the health of the pioneer mothers, and I had never heard about that before.

Richard M Hebertson is a retired Ob/Gyn, a former head of Obstetrics at LDS hospital.  He talked about the birth of his first child and how he was isolated in the waiting room and not given any information.  His wife had pushed for four hours to give birth to that first child, but she didn’t remember the birth because she had been given nitrous oxide gas.  He went on to talk about how he had practiced during a glorious age of obstetrics *cough* when they had learned so many things.  He was particularly impressed with regional anesthesia, which he saw as a big advancement over the ‘twilight sleep’ drugs used when he began his practice.  Dr. Hebertson talked about letting the fathers back into the room for birth and how he had trained in natural childbirth, which I took to be some training with the Bradley Method.  He was also impressed with the introduction of electronic fetal monitoring, which made the ladies I was sitting with roll their eyes back into their heads!

The next panelist was a currently practicing Perinatologist at the University of Utah, Kirtly Parker Jones, MD.  She really impressed us when she first began to talk about choices, because she seemed to be embracing home birth and really supporting women’s options.  We got less impressed as the discussion progressed.

Mary Rizzuto was the next panelist to speak and her angle was that by receiving both a heart transplant and a kidney transplant that she had been reborn.   Nobody was quite seeing how organ donation really fit into the choices facing women giving birth, but her story was interesting nonetheless.  She knew her part of the panel was a little disjointed and kept her comments brief.

The final panelist was a woman named Linze Floyd who had given birth this spring at home.  She talked about how she had researched her birthing options and come to the conclusion that a home birth was the best option for her.  They showed a slideshow from her birth while she talked, with some really beautiful pictures.  The second picture showed her in a birth pool, and I thought I know who her midwife is, I’ve seen that tub before!

The moderator of the discussion showed a graphic map of the world that reflected the birth rates around the world, and a second map that showed how the world’s maternal deaths are largely taking place in Asia and Africa.  There was a good question about how US maternal death rates compared to Europe and Dr. Jones felt that was because America had what she called “3rd World Counties” where poverty and lack of access to care raised the maternal death rate.  This is true, but she wasn’t going to accept that our over-use of technology was any part of that.

One of the doulas I was with, Michelle made some good points about how the medical community sometimes acts as though you have plenty of choices, but when the choice you make isn’t what they had in mind, you are attacked.  She made sure to mention the American Medical Association’s plans to outlaw homebirth. 

The discussion turned to risk and Dr. Jones tried to make a point about the choice women usually make when their pregnant, and that is to take all the risks on themselves in order to protect their babies.  I started to take issue with some of the things she was saying, because the implication is that women who want to have vaginal births are being selfish somehow by not submitting to surgery.  The doctor is right that women pretty much will do everything in their power to give the best to their babies, and for some of us that means going to great lengths to AVOID surgery, because we know that a surgical birth carries risks for baby too.

Linze made some good points talking about the restrictions she’d encountered when she investigated a hospital birth, and how she was required to have a heplock in place and would have to submit to electronic fetal monitoring.  Dr. Hebertson seemed to fall back on the old excuse that it is really difficult to get changes made and how hard he had to work to get the Certified Nurse Midwives permission to practice at LDS Hospital.  I think it’s admirable that he worked for that choice to be created for women, but it doesn’t really explain why it should be so hard give women the autonomy to give birth as they really desired without hospital politics getting in the way.

There was a lot of information that got fired around the room, and in the end I’m not sure if any progress was made on any fronts.  The doulas I was with all left still feeling frustrated. We can talk all day about how many wonderful choices women have, but we know full well that a woman who wants to have a vaginal birth after a cesarean is going to find out that her choices are actually very limited indeed.  And we know that when we go into the hospital the women will hear “well we need you to do X  because it is hospital policy” and “you can’t do Y because the hospital doesn’t allow it” and that when it comes right down to it women don’t have much choice at all about some of the things that will happen to them.