Tuesday, July 31, 2007
The intensifying contractions were three minutes apart as Lynn Griesemer tried to reassure her 11-year-old daughter, who hovered anxiously beside her. Her husband, Bob, had not returned the four increasingly urgent messages she'd left on his cellphone and had neglected to give her his new office number at the Pentagon. The couple's sixth child would be born that Friday in June 2002 and Griesemer was worried he might not make it in time.
She regarded his role as central and expected him to do more than act as chauffeur and supporter. After a frantic hour battling rush-hour traffic on Interstate 66, Bob Griesemer burst through the front door of their modest Centreville home and sprinted down the hall to the master bedroom. Less than 30 minutes later, their son Michael, who weighed 10 pounds, was born just as his parents planned: without assistance from a doctor, nurse or midwife. As he had five years earlier when their fifth child was born in their bed, Bob Griesemer caught the newborn and cut the umbilical cord.
"It was the highlight of our life and the highlight of our marriage," recalled Lynn Griesemer, a 44-year-old former Army officer whose four older children were born in hospitals. "An unassisted birth hammers home what it means to be a woman."
One of the leaders of a fledgling movement to encourage unattended home birth, Griesemer said she is unfazed by the reaction she often encounters when people learn about her last two deliveries.
"People think you're a freak," she says matter-of-factly.
Yet in the view of Griesemer and other advocates of the practice -- also known as "freebirth"; "UC," for unassisted childbirth; and "DIY [do-it-yourself] birth" -- solo birth is superior to the unnecessary interventions that characterize hospital deliveries and the intrusive presence of midwives.
For these women, out-of-hospital births are not accidents of timing, but deliberate expressions of their values. For most, a desire to retain control over one of life's most emotional, intimate and primal processes is paramount.
"Childbirth is a natural event, and I really don't need all the technology," said Griesemer, who, like many freebirthers, shuns doctors and opposes routine immunizations for her children. Unassisted birth, she adds, allows the husband to play a central, rather than a supporting, role and is better for the whole family.
But the freebirth phenomenon alarms many obstetricians, midwives and feminist health experts, who characterize the practice as ill-advised at best -- and life-threatening at worst. One called it "a kind of hubris."
The practice, they say, can result in devastating injuries: brain damage, hemorrhage, infection -- even death. In the view of many critics, the phenomenon has been given a significant boost by the Internet, which has lent legitimacy to a fringe practice and enabled like-minded women to find each other. To critics it represents a foolhardy repudiation of medical advances that cut infant and maternal mortality in the United States by 90 percent during the 20th century.
When Things Go Wrong
Some experts worry that vulnerable or gullible women will be misled into thinking that giving birth alone at home is a viable, even reasonable, alternative. These mothers, they maintain, may not understand that calling 911 -- which many homebirthers cite as their emergency backup -- is a poor contingency plan when every second counts.
"Obviously we don't think unassisted home birth is a good idea," said Judy Norsigian, executive director of Our Bodies Ourselves, a pioneering feminist health group based in Boston.