Are exhibitionist births dangerous?

One of the fathers of the natural childbirth movement says yes

Don’t let anyone watch

Johannes Kroemer/Getty Images

It may have been the year’s most anticipated birth—and it certainly was the most sensational. On Oct. 25, New York performance artist Marni Kotak delivered a baby boy in a Brooklyn gallery in front of an audience of 20. As worldwide press inundated the gallery for information, Kotak retreated from the spotlight. But a week later she and baby Ajax were back in the gallery talking to visitors and finishing the exhibit she called “The Birth of Baby X”—now complete with the placenta, the bloody pillow and sheets and, of course, the video. Canada had its own public childbirth in October, when Ottawa chiropractor Nancy Salgueiro live-streamed the home birth of her third child over the Internet and 2,500 people watched. Nothing, it seems, is sacred anymore, not even the once very private act of pushing out a baby. And now a retired French obstetrician says stunts like these have not only perverted the idea of natural childbirth, but are actually setting women up for dangerous births.

“We are at the present time—in regard to the history of childbirth—at the bottom of the abyss,” says Michel Odent, who’s been a part of over 15,000 hospital births and is widely considered to be one of the fathers of the natural childbirth movement, having introduced water births in the 1970s. And he blames it on all the people in the room—medical staff, partners, family members, doulas and especially cameras. “People look at [birth] videos and miss the important point—that during childbirth the most basic need of a labouring woman is not to feel observed.”

The 81-year-old doctor describes birth as an “involuntary process” that cannot be helped. So all the support people are making it more difficult for the labouring woman to do it on her own. Fetal monitors, cameras, people talking and other stimuli engage the thinking part of her brain, the neocortex, which needs to be shut off in order for the woman to produce the hormones needed to have a baby quickly and easily. Instead, the majority of women experience long, painful labours and are fed synthetic forms of the “love hormone” oxytocin.

“It is not a surprise that modern births are more and more difficult,” says Odent, citing the rising rates of Caesarean section (nearly 30 per cent in Canada) and new statistics showing that more home births are being transferred to hospitals. “We have a lack of understanding about the birth process.”

So what is Odent’s ideal situation for an easy birth? “Nobody present but the delivering woman and an experienced and silent midwife sitting in a corner perceived as a protector, a mother figure.” And he adds that the midwife should be knitting. “We know today that repetitive tasks like knitting are a way to reduce the level of adrenalin. And it is very important that the level of the adrenalin in the midwife is as low as possible.”

Toronto midwife doula and childbirth educator Karen McWilliams says she gets it—we’re like all other mammals who need darkness, quiet and safety to give birth. “But the reality is we don’t live in that world. For good or bad, all those images of birth are out there, women have heard stories, seen videos. And most are scared and don’t want to do it alone.”

In Ottawa, Salgueiro wanted to show that a calm, natural birth is nothing to fear, “where you’re empowered and you don’t feel like it’s out of your control,” she said, three days after her son Oziah was born. Based on the reactions from people who watched it—including expecting couples, families who showed their young children and older men who weren’t given the opportunity of seeing their own children born—Salgueiro’s video was educational and appreciated.

Odent acknowledges that people like Salgueiro are filled with good intentions. “They want to further natural childbirth, but are doing the exact opposite. From these videos people think what makes a birth natural is the position of the woman giving birth or the fact that she’s at home or that she’s in a birthing pool. But what makes a birth natural is to feel secure without feeling observed.”

What’s even more dangerous, he says, is that videos of hospital births with multiple people running in and out of the room, and videos of home births in which the whole family, doulas and midwives are involved, further the basic “cultural conditioning that a woman does not have the power to give birth by herself, that she needs other people.”

Odent is ready to take his message to the world and says, at his age, he is no longer worried about being diplomatic when discussing who should be, and who should not be, in the room. He’s co-organizing a 2012 conference in Hawaii, which he’s dubbed “the Big Wake-Up Call.” The program includes discussions of a new, less-intrusive C-section technique, the behavioural effects of synthetic oxytocin, and utopian thoughts on childbirth in 4012. It wraps up with “Silent knitting: rediscovering authentic midwifery.” No talking—and absolutely no cameras.


Are exhibitionist births dangerous?

  1. Spelled my name wrong :( Salgueiro

    I do agree with Dr. Odent’s perspective on birth.  The reality is though that women have been exposed to many negative images of birth through the media. If all of us homebirthers and natural hospital birthers go ahead and have these wonderfully private birth experiences the rest of women in our culture will be left to live in the fear that our culture has sold them.  This needed to be done to help show other women birth as Michel Odent describes it. 

    “videos of home births in which the whole family, doulas and midwives are
    involved, further the basic ‘cultural conditioning that a woman does
    not have the power to give birth by herself, that she needs other

    I think I did show that you don’t need the “whole family, doulas and midwives to be involved”.  I gave birth unassisted, midwives arrived 15 minutes later.  The only people there were because I wanted photos and video (which Dr. Odent doesn’t agree with but I am very happy to have) and were only present for 20-30 minutes.  My husband was busy getting warm water for the tub and trying to wake up the kids who I wanted to be present, all while I birthed by myself. 

    I also birthed by myself the first time as the midwife arrived while the baby was crowning and with only 4 minutes to spare. I only had my husband and sister taking care of my basic needs at the time. I would not have wanted to be home alone, who would have gotten me water?   My only birth with midwives and more friends present was my second and I did feel observed and did not like the feeling. 

    I do agree with Michel Odent birth needs to be unobserved and that does not happen in our modern birth practices, especially in hospitals. 

  2. I also agree with Dr.O’s thoughts and views. I do think however, that if you do not have a uterus you don’t really get an opinion because you are not the one who really has to go through pregnancy and birthing. 
    Yes, it is our culture is to blame for the way women are so afraid of birth.  But the truth is some women need the support of family and friends at that time. Not all women can birth on their own and yes, our culture is to blame, especially the way birth is portrayed on TV and movies.
    I had my first baby 9 months ago at home.  I’ve always been a ‘lone wolf’ so for me to be alone in this time was great!  My midwife only came for the last 5 hours of my 27 hour labor and I was ok with that.  Not all women are comfortable with this.  And many families want photos to remember that moment. 
    What Dr Nancy did was great because she showed and inspired families what their births could look like rather than a fear based birth.  I watched several online videos during my pregnancy of women birthing unassisted and in water etc… these videos really boosted my confidence in knowing that I could definatly birth alone at home.  For now I think our society really does need videos like this otherwise all we have are fear based birthing that we see everyday on TV and Movies.

    It is not often that the general population has the opportunity to see a normal birth so Dr O as a natural birth advocate should be supporting rather than arguing.  If not for these women taping their natural births, how would women even know or see that this is possible?  Sometimes we need to see to believe because let’s face it, in our north american culture we are not brought up to simply have faith.

  3. I totally respect Mr. Odent’s view that women should feel the empowerment of the birth experience, trust their bodies, etc. But what I take issue with is writing that into his own “structure” – yet another person telling birthing women and midwives how to “properly manage” the situation.

    I think an empowered woman can also determine what is right for her, and articulate it. An effective midwife can help protect it while the woman is in labor. But seriously – knitting? I get the idea behind it, but women, midwives, they’re a diverse group with a diverse set of needs and I don’t think his limited (but well meaning) vision of how to attain it is really very helpful. Which is a shame – because I think the ideas behind it are really fantastic. He just took it a step to far into his own imagination.

  4. I think it is funny that the writer of this article thinks that someone “invented” water birth.Otherwise, interesting perspectives and I would like to attend the conference. 

  5. This doctor doesn’t seem to understand how important it is for a father to also be part. Its obvious he has never expierenced labor pains as he is male, i could not imagine doing thT without my best friend and the other half of the equation. The birth isn’t as important as the family. Becoming birthzilla won’t make anyone a better mother.

  6. I had an awesome totally natural home waterbirth this past summer.  I had a friend taking pictures for me and I didn’t even know she was in the room.  My son was born in 3 hours and I am SO happy that I have those pictures to go back and relive such an awesome experience………………………………………….. as far as too many strangers in hospital rooms and crazy monitors and all that, that was my first birth, still vaginal w/out any drugs, but something I had to fight for and was really difficult… and it’s EXACTLY why I chose to have my second sweet boy at home with a very very experienced licensed midwife.  

  7. I would think Dr Odent knows more than most people about birth even if he hasn’t had the personal experience! I saw him at a NCT conference maybe 25 years ago, and a more knowledgable, empathetic and caring person you coudn’t ask for.

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