When I decided to attend midwifery school, I knew my pro-life values would likely be challenged. Even though I chose a Catholic institution, I began graduate school thinking that my biggest obstacle would be trying to fit in among my avidly pro-choice colleagues (and somehow convince them that I'm not weird). While they might think I’m weird for other reasons (see: niche birth memes), they generally respect my choices to publicly identify as pro-life, to endorse natural family planning, and to protect the sanctity of human life. In fact, our differences have led to productive and thought-provoking conversations. I was shocked when I realized that one of the biggest threats to human dignity actually happens in my favorite place in the world: the delivery room.
The Culture of Death in the Room of Birth
I’ve witnessed, assisted at, and guided hundreds of births over the last seven years. It’s a sacred space where new life enters the world, but this room — filled with the sights, smells, and sounds of new life — is horrifically tainted by the culture of death.
This room — filled with the sights, smells, and sounds of new life — is horrifically tainted by the culture of death.
The fundamental belief of the pro-life stance is that every life has the same value, no matter how big or how small. As Scripture (Genesis 1:26-28) and tradition (Catechism, 2nd ed., 355) teach us, every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. Every person is a unique and essential part of the Body of Christ. Looking upon another is looking upon the face of Our Lord, and we should treat our bodies and the bodies of others with the dignity they deserve by virtue of their very existence. While these beliefs are extrapolated to apply to intrauterine life, somehow, they are completely lost during birth.
Women make themselves and their unborn children vulnerable during childbirth, and obstetrics essentially treats the birthing body as secular. The respect of each woman’s free will, values, and reason are often abandoned during impending delivery.
In a recent international study, one-third of women reported feeling exceptionally vulnerable or abused throughout their labor and delivery process. Notably, women felt these feelings most acutely in the 15 minutes before and the 15 minutes after delivery. Unfortunately, I’m not at all shocked by this study. Labor can be unfamiliar — even frightening — for women, and there is gravity in a body bringing a new life earthside.
Just as in the first moments before gestation begins, consent is imperative in the final moments before gestation ends. Frequently, health care providers (nurses, midwives, and physicians) use violent language when talking to and about women in labor. Women are told, “You're going to feel my touch,” as if they have no choice in the matter. They hear language like, “Break her bag,” or “Let’s get her on her back.” If labor doesn’t go according to plan, it’s often called a “failed trial of labor,” “failure to progress,” or “failure to descend.” But the woman giving birth is not the one failing.
Just as in the first moments before gestation begins, consent is imperative in the final moments before gestation ends.
The sad reality is that women are told to lie flat on their backs, with knees and feet up in stirrups, and to hold their breath and “push for ten.” This method of delivery has one purpose: to shorten the pushing stage which, conveniently, shortens the amount of time a provider has to be in the room. When women push how and when their body expresses the need to do so, they experience less genital trauma and fewer abnormalities in the fetal heart rate.
However, women are often asked to abandon the natural desire to lie on their sides, or squat and push through their feet, or get on all fours. They are denied the urge to yell, or even verbalize what they want, where they feel comfortable, and what their bodies are telling them. They are made to close their mouths and do as they are told. Women are told how to meet their child as if our Creator made every pelvis, fetal head, contraction, and push identical.
In the delivery room, women are made to close their mouths and do as they are told.
Timelines, interventions completely unsupported by evidence (hello, bedrest during labor), and the convenience of health care staff are too often favored over the woman’s values, choices, privacy, voice, and dignity — with no regard to potential trauma in the delivery room. One of the powerful gifts of the human body is that the body and mind remember. They remember everything from the gentle touch of the beloved to the force of intervention. The frontal lobes of the human brain will replay traumatic moments and sensations over and over, triggering the fight or flight response in the brain and causing uneasiness and panic long after the pushing is done, the sutures knotted, and the gloves and drapes removed. This memory can turn into postpartum or permanent anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
The Pro-Life Responsibility
Valuing human life is important now more than ever before, but we must think about what we ask of women in the delivery room. Without explicit acknowledgment and action in areas such as maternal trauma, we are asking women to enter into pregnancy and birth vulnerable to the culture of death. We who stand up in the name of human life, autonomy, peace, and dignity sometimes do so without recognizing that, unfortunately, the body bearing life is not always given these basic rights. The responsibility falls on each of us — pro-life or otherwise — to ensure that every woman feels safe as the last minutes of her child in utero give way to the first moments of her child in the world.
Valuing human life is important now more than ever before, but we must think about what we ask of women in the delivery room.