It’s a controversial practice that has been branded both dangerous and irresponsible by experts. Yet figures released from the University of Western Sydney last year revealed that there is a growing trend among Australian women who are choosing to deliver a baby at home, free from any medical intervention or assistance.
While exact numbers remain inconclusive, the research suggested that this practice, commonly known as free-birthing, has grown in popularity due to the fact that an increasing number of women are disillusioned by Australia’s fragmented maternity system.
“I think that we have to look at a broken maternity service that is causing women to be refugees from it,” says Hannah Dahlen, professor of midwifery at the University of Western Sydney.
“Last year when we researched for a paper ‘Birthing Outside of the System’, some of the women we interviewed have actually suffered post traumatic stress as a result of a bad birth experience in hospital - and, to be honest, when you hear some of their stories, you can understand why.”
The paper, which focused on different women’s perception of risk, revealed findings that women who chose to free-birth have a totally different perception of risk to those who don’t.
“Most women feel that hospital is the safest place for them to give birth,” explains Dahlen. “But we found that amongst the free-birthers interviewed, most had a fear of hospital, and, as a result, they believe that they cannot labour in these environments.”
“When you hear stories of women who have previously been sexually abused, that have then been forced to have internal examinations during their birth, you can’t help but feel sympathy for them.
"Of course, for them, that kind of situation is going to bring the abuse back.”
While fear plays a dominant part in many women’s choice to free-birth, Dahlen also believes that a lack of access to midwives doesn’t help either.
“There are many women who would chose to have a midwife present if they could have accessed, or afforded one. But the sad reality is that midwives are not always available locally, and they are not funded.
"Out of the women interviewed who free-birthed, there was only one or two who said that they wouldn’t have trusted a midwife to be present”.
As an experienced free-birther herself, Lisa Morgan runs a website offering advice to other women considering this practice. She highlights factors such as intimacy, privacy, and control among the reasons as why she chose to free-birth, and believes that despite medical opinion to the contrary, it is a safe option.
Of her own experience, Lisa says, “I wasn’t disturbed by anyone else in my birthing space, and this allowed me to just experience it for what it was. It felt right, just like how birth is supposed to be.”
“After each free-birth, there is a strong sense of confidence, trust, and hormonal release, where you feel like you are flying, and you know that you’ve just been through a really important rite of passage. During that time, I felt like I had loads of energy, and wasn't tired or exhausted at all.”
Lisa says she's not alone in feeling like this. “I have spoken to a few other women who have mentioned this too, and they agree that, in comparison to their experiences in hospital, or even with a homebirth, free-birth is definitely a very different experience, and that they felt on top of the world afterwards.”
When asked if she would free-birth again, there was no hesitation in Lisa’s response. “Yes! I can’t see myself being able to birth with this level of autonomy and lack of inhibition any other way ... a bit like sex really!”
Roxanne Bayliss from Leeds, UK, agrees. “I would definitely free-birth again,” she says.
“Both of my free-births were planned. I wanted to follow my inner guidance and not be affected by other people's opinions, ideas, or beliefs about what they thought was right for me. I wanted minimum interference, and the process to be as natural and intuitive as possible.”
For the majority of health care professionals however, free-birth remains a practice that is not condoned, with many believing it to pose unnecessary and unacceptable risks to both mother and child.
“Our college is of the view that well-informed women would not want to expose themselves or, more particularly their child, to unacceptably high risks of death or disability,” says Professor Michael Permezel, president of The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG).
Permezel believes that in most free-birthing cases women are either ill informed or that they acknowledge, but underestimate, the level of risk.
“The dangers to both mother and child can be both immediate and long term, and extend from short-term effects to death or long-term disability,” says Permezel.
“The most common danger to the mother is uncontrolled haemorrhage around the time of childbirth, and the most common risk to the fetus is lack of oxygen during childbirth.”
While accepting that there will always be a small number of women choosing risk-prone birthing options, Permezel is quite adamant that this is not a practice that will grow in popularity.
“Women are becoming more risk averse and less accepting of preventable mishap (death or permanent disability) to their offspring.”
Dahlen, however, doesn’t necessarily agree with Permezel. “I think free-birth will continue to grow in popularity until we fix the system,” she says. “It currently exists as a growing trend in Australia and America, both of which are countries with the highest rates of interventions at birth, and with minimal access to birthing centres.”
What both experts are united on is the fact that anyone considering a free-birth should understand the excessive risks involved with this practice. They say women should make the choice with the same level of awareness that you would apply to other areas of your life where you would not tolerate risk.
“Free-birthing is not a safe option and we should always promote a midwife being present,” says Dahlen.
“But we also need to ensure that we don’t hunt down the women who choose to free-birth and demonise them, but, instead, try to understand why they make this choice.”