The Today Show Uses Fear-Mongering to Demonize Midwives and Home Births

by Cara on September 30, 2009

in media, misogyny, parenthood, paternalism, patriarchy, pregnancy, reproductive justice, women’s health

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The embedded video above is a fairly recent segment from The Today Show on the rise in midwife-assisted home births. It’s called “The Perils of Midwifery,” and it’s a segment which, it should be noted, uses almost entirely men as reporters and experts. And as you can likely tell from the title, it’s a segment which demonizes home births and midwives as much as feasibly possible.

The segment features the McKenzie family, who have suffered a horrific tragedy — their baby, who was delivered at home with midwife assistance, did not survive. Their story is clearly a heartbreaking one, and there’s absolutely no reason that it shouldn’t be told. At the same time, though, it’s also incredibly unfair for their story to be used in place of facts, or held up as an example of common home birth outcomes. Because while it is in fact one outcome that actually occurred, it’s far from a representative one.

In fact, as you’ll find buried deep in the segment, there is evidence that midwife-assisted home birth is actually safer than birth in a hospital. Though reporters immediately try to discredit such evidence as inaccurate due to the greater number of women with high-risk pregnancies who choose hospital birth rather than home birth, a recent study out of Ontario shows the same results when only low-risk pregnancy outcomes were examined.

The segment, unsurprisingly, also fails to address hospital birth in the same manner that it addresses home birth — in terms of worst possible outcomes. There aren’t women talking about complications from cesarean sections that were likely unnecessary, parents discussing medical intervention that may have resulted in the deaths of their babies, or anyone talking about how their partner died in a c-section. They certainly didn’t discuss the women who have been legally forced by hospitals to undergo c-sections. Which, if you’re going to compare home birth up against hospital birth by using an example of a particularly tragic home birth outcome, would have certainly seemed fair and relevant.

And still, it wasn’t enough to air statements from those who have a vested interest in hospital birth claiming that home birth has a good chance of killing your baby — they also aired statements (from a man) demonizing the women who actually choose home birth, comparing it to a spa treatment and calling it a frivolous choice, a decision based on reading too many celebrity magazines and having too much cash to throw around.

Could that possibly be any more patronizing? Obviously a woman who does something other than what she’s told must be out of her mind. She couldn’t have legitimate concerns, like those listed above, or seek a more intimate experience — or want to avoid doctors and nurses giving orders, an episiotomy, pressure to take unwanted medication, being expected or forced to give birth on her back, etc. And lord knows she couldn’t have actually looked at the research and determined that home birth was her safest option. (It’s also worth noting that while it’s true that women with larger incomes are more likely to choose midwife-assisted home birth, this is a result of women’s current lack of choices — insurance that includes maternity care generally does not cover anything other than hospital births.)

There are always risks associated with giving birth, for both woman and child. And women certainly deserve to know about them in order to make healthy and informed decisions. But they also deserve to have their choices respected, and to be provided with fact-based information — such as actual numbers, overview of various risks for both home birth and hospital birth, and information about different types of midwives — rather than skewed and biased fear-mongering that does nothing to substantially argue its point. The latter is what we see far more often than not when it comes to discussions of home birth, and it’s exactly what’s portrayed up above.

Choices in Childbirth have responded to “The Perils of Midwifery” with a petition demanding accurate reporting on all birthing options. You should read the full thing, but here is a short excerpt:

While empathizing deeply with the McKenzie family and their loss, we are shocked at the way in which NBC’s “Today Show” chose to portray homebirth as dangerous while choosing to ignore ample medical research that demonstrates its safety in the US and in other developed countries around the world. Not only did the producers of the Today Show ignore journalistic due diligence, they also chose to ignore basic rules of fairness by repeatedly citing doctors and the trade union that represents them while denying midwives and their proponents a voice.   This is simply irresponsible journalism, and misleading to your viewers. We expect more from such a well-respected program.

Click here to sign.

You can also read more timely posts on the segment over at Our Bodies Our Blog and Midwife Connection.


1 Fi September 30, 2009 at 5:52 pm

You think that’s bad? There’s a new law in Australia that refuses to give registration for any midwives who do home births. Basically, this means home births are now illegal, or done without a midwife – which no one can argue is safe.

2 Cara September 30, 2009 at 6:12 pm

Yup, Fi, I have heard of that, I believe through Hoyden About Town. It’s rather atrocious. And I’d say it was precisely this kind of fear-mongering that allowed them to do such a thing and not only give women fewer options, but also make them less safe.

3 tulin September 30, 2009 at 9:14 pm

Umm, note to the today show, when claiming that recent celebrity home births may be influencing the increasing amount of home births in the US, do not cite Meryl Streep and Demi Moore as examples. Both of their last births over 15 years ago, and each gave birth several times prior. NOT recent.

I thought the most recent celebrity birthing trend was scheduling a C-section, but hey, I don’t really follow those things. (And, I would venture to guess that not too many pregnant women look to People magazine to decide what/when/how to give birth.)

And seriously, WHY were more men than women featured in this segment? Women are the ones giving birth, no? Guess we shouldn’t get their opinions on the matter. Aggravating.

4 MamaBinWA October 1, 2009 at 12:55 pm

I recently had a lovely homebirth with a CNM. I find it odd that men in particular object to midwifery. I think it has alot to do with the fact that midwives are traditionally women, and OB’s men.
I read an interesting bit about the hospitalization of birth and the increase in anesthesia. It claimed that prior to the push to bring births into the hospitals administering anesthesia had been seen as a less important skill, and routinely nuns, nurses or other women were dispatched to anesthetize. As soon as it was realized how lucrative it could be when the majority of women were birthing in hospitals, Anesthesiologists appeared (generally men, well respected).
I hope reproductive rights activists remember that birth options are apart of their movement, and to fight diligently against those who want to limit our options.
As a side note, my state is one where Medicaid covers midwives, providing options to low income women.
Thanks for this article!

5 Jackie October 4, 2009 at 9:45 am

This is something I’ve been following for a while. It obviously is a backlash against really bad, disrespectful treatment in hospital settings. However, this is an issue that really divides the feminist community. I’ve spoken to many of my friends who identify as feminists, some who work in non-profit feminist organizations, and I’ve had my ass handed to me by them about the poor treatment in hospitals and the importance of choice in childbirth.

6 Jessie October 8, 2009 at 12:33 am

I would like to remark that both my brother and I were born at home. We were both of average birth weight, had no complications, and I scored a perfect ten on my APGAR.

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