God is my OB-GYN: Unassisted childbirth for Christ
Kathryn Joyce reports on one sad result of the ultra-pro-natalist Christian Quiverfull movement's love affair with unassisted childbirth: Carri Chmielewski, a mother of eight, has
died ended up in intensive care from complications following an unassisted birth that also killed her baby.
The Quiverfulls are Protestants who refuse birth control because they think women should bear as many children as God sends them. They reject birth control because they object on principle to women making choices about their fertility.
As Kathryn explains in her excellent book, Quiverfull, the movement prizes large families as proof of wifely submission.
Resigning yourself to 12 or 13 children sounds pretty submissive, but every flock has its overachievers. Some Quiverfulls demonstrate that extra measure of self-abnegation by accepting as many life-threatening complications as God thinks they should have.
For these folks, trusting a healthcare provider shows a lack of resignation. They see it as a slap in the face to God.
I'm not making this up. Joyce quotes from Carri's own blog: “God never meant for man (Pregnant Women) to surrender himself (herself) to the total control of man (dr./technology, etc.) God considers that idolatry. We are to surrender ourselves to GOD.”
In an unassisted home birth, the woman, her husband, and God are expected to deal with whatever complications arise. And if not, woops, God's will. It's not exactly a pro-life position, but Quiverfulls are refreshingly direct about their priorities. Fetuses are all well and good, but ultimately they're just props for women to play out their elaborate gestures of submission.
Carri's unassisted birth went tragically awry. Her death and that of her infant son might have been averted if she'd sought competent medical advice. Instead, when she was two weeks overdue and suffering from high blood pressure, she went to see a quack who told her that her abnormal pregnancy was A-OK. She went ahead with the unassisted birth on the basis of that terrible advice.
The party line in unassisted birth circles is that Carri's complication, an amniotic fluid embolism, could just as easily have killed her in the hospital. But as Dr. Amy Tuteur points out, Carri was two weeks overdue and much larger than she should have been--both risk factors for an AFE. A competent provider would have realized that the longer Carri was allowed to linger with an overdue baby and high blood pressure, the more likely something was to go wrong. We'll never know what Carri would have chosen if she'd had the benefit of the medical facts.
This being the USA, it wasn't long before someone suggested criminal prosecution as Carri clung to life in the ICU: "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," one blogger wrote. It was a popular point of view. In fairness, there was almost as much enthusiasm for prosecuting her husband. How about a lawsuit against the quack instead?
Criminalizing stupid birthing decisions is doing the Quiverfulls' work for them. It's saying that women can't be trusted to make their own medical decisions. If you let people make their own decisions, a certain percentage of them will make spectacularly bad choices. Grown women have the right to refuse lifesaving treatment for stupid religious reasons, whether they are Jehovah's Witnesses foregoing blood transfusions, Christian scientists rejecting antibiotics, or Quiverfulls turning their backs on modern obstetrics. That's what it means to be an adult. Pregnant adults are still adults.
Besides which, trying to prosecute unassisted birthers will just feed the persecution complex that makes the Quiverfull lifestyle seem alluring to its adherents. Worst of all, if unassisted birth is a crime, laboring women in trouble might refuse to seek lifesaving help.
Correction: In an earlier version of this post I wrote, incorrectly, that Carri had died. At last report, she was fighting for survival in intensive care.