The Power of Choice When You're Giving Birth

If you think of your life as a series of births, what changes?

The first birth is when you arrive here, as a wet, wiggling newborn. But there may be other transitions in your life that feel just as difficult and profound. Some people actually call those passages re-birth.

But why does the birth metaphor matter? Let’s start with the real thing — childbirth. Specifically, the experience of Ina May Gaskin. In this clip, she describes the experience of childbirth in the 1960s — complete with forceps and mandatory anesthesia.

That experience prompted Gaskin to go on to transform the way women in America give birth. She started the modern midwifery movement, which gave women a lot more choices of how and where to have a baby.

But some things didn’t change. When I gave birth the first time, it was in a hospital. My water broke, but labor hadn’t started. When I went in to be checked, they told me I could spend the night — but if contractions hadn’t started by morning, they’d induce. It wasn’t a choice.

The thing about induced labor is that the contractions are much more intense. It was brutal, for me and for my daughter. She was born in some distress, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck.

Maybe that would have happened anyway, and it all turned out okay but it wasn’t the experience any of us had wanted.

"That story holds true for if not a majority of American women, certainly a large, large number," says Wendy Kline, a historian and author of “Coming Home” – a definitive new history of medicine and midwives. "We don't have horror stories perhaps, but it's only in retrospect that we realize things could have gone differently, and we weren't given a choice."

Kline says the history of birth in America is the story of the medical establishment’s deliberate suppression of midwives. For her — as for most mothers — it’s a story that’s political and personal.