Is unassisted childbirth criminally irresponsible?

A potentially dangerous reproductive decision popular with radical pro-lifers might strain pro-choice values

By Kate Harding

Published June 23, 2009 8:24PM (EDT)

In a thought-provoking article published Sunday on Salon, Frances Kissling, former President of Catholics for a Free Choice, asked: "If pro-choice advocates follow the example of those opposed to abortion and present only one value -- a women's right to make this decision -- as the only ethical consideration worth discussing in difficult cases, do we not become as extremist as we say they are? Is there not, in an ethical sense, an important weighing of women's rights and needs against a respect for life, even the life of nonpersons? Is there a point in pregnancy when our respect for life might outweigh a woman's right to make this choice?" The solidly pro-choice answers are no, no, and no. Insisting that women must be allowed to control their own bodies and make their own decisions is the opposite of dogmatism; it's a position that supports human liberty rather than restricting it. (And the framing of "respect for life" and "respect for the woman" as opposing forces implies that respect for life does not encompass respect for grown women, which is problematic, to say the least.) But what happens when we ask those same questions about issues of reproductive freedom other than abortion? What happens when we ask them about women who are so radically pro-life they'll endanger their own and their children's health in order to leave God in charge of their family planning?

On the No Longer Qivering ("There is no 'you' in quivering") blog -- a site written by former members of the fundamentalist Christian "Quiverfull" movement, in which couples eschew all forms of birth control and hope to produce extremely large families -- Vyckie Garrison (whose story was told in a feature story on Salon) writes of learning that a Quiverfull blogger named Carri recently gave birth to a stillborn baby and nearly died in the process. Carri, like many women in the movement, had opted not only for a home birth but unassisted childbirth -- no doctor, no midwife, sometimes not even any prenatal care. The idea is to trust in God and the woman's body (designed by God primarily for childbirth, according to this way of thinking) to ensure that everything turns out all right.

"This so reminded me of my own experience," writes Garrison. By the time she got pregnant with her seventh child, she'd had traumatic birth experiences that left her wary of both hospitals and midwives. "So, in desperation, I did a bunch of research on the internet and then planned for an unassisted home birth." Fortunately for Vyckie and her family, when she started feeling "shaky and anxious" during labor, she went to the hospital, where she had an emergency C-section. "After the surgery, I learned that I had suffered a partial uterine rupture -- the baby and I had both been in a life-threatening situation." Reading about the tragic outcome of Carri's decision to have an unassisted birth, she says, reminded her of how close her extremist religious beliefs had brought her to a similar fate. "[T]he quiverfull mindset leads women to risk their lives for an impossible ideal. Every time that I cheated death in my own life-threatening pregnancies and deliveries, I felt like God was protecting me -- He was blessing my obedience to Him. I was starting to feel invincible so long as I was in the will of God. This news about Carri and her baby boy is a startling reminder of how utterly foolish -- how warped and misguided my thinking had become."

In theory, Carri's tragic outcome might have been avoided if she'd sought prenatal care from a licensed medical professional. At another blog Garrison links to, the writer "Calulu" notes that if he or she lived in Carri's hometown, "I'd be wondering why this type of willful neglect wasn't being prosecuted with the same fervor that a crackhead abusing and neglecting their children would warrant," a sentiment more people are echoing on the site's forums. Which brings us right back to Kissling's questions: "Is there not, in an ethical sense, an important weighing of women's rights and needs against a respect for life, even the life of nonpersons? Is there a point in pregnancy when our respect for life might outweigh a woman's right to make this choice?"

No. Still no. Even if one believes that opting for unassisted childbirth is "utterly foolish," or that the Quiverfull ideology it goes along with is "warped and misguided," it comes down to the same question that's always at the heart of debates over reproductive rights: Do we, as a society, trust women to make their own health care decisions?

It's complicated somewhat when we're talking about women who are living religious values that require total submission to both God and men, where the very freeness of their free will may be in question. But just as banning the burqa would be taking away individual autonomy in an effort to encourage it, prosecuting women who choose non-traditional methods of childbirth would be a dangerous imposition on women's right to control their own bodies. And just as Tracy Clark-Flory said with regard to the burqa question, "there would be no end." To designate unassisted childbirth as criminally irresponsible would only pave the way for bans on homebirths, on choosing midwives instead of doctors, on refusing any number of recommended medical treatments during pregnancy. It would be doing exactly what pro-choice advocates must continually resist: declaring that the state has a right to override a woman's own reproductive decisions. No matter how tragic and arguably avoidable the consequences of some of those decisions may be, the solution is not to criminalize the more unpopular ones, but to focus as ever on making comprehensive sex ed, reliable medical information, and birth control options as accessible as possible -- and to hope that women risking their lives and their wanted pregnancies for extremist religious ideals will, as Vyckie Garrison did, see the light.


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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