Nancy Miner, reports The Washington Post, wanted to give birth to her baby at home. The fact that she was 39, that this was her first child, that there was no electricity in her "rustic Middleburg cottage" did not daunt her. Assisting her were her husband, a friend and a lay midwife. During delivery, the baby's umbilical cord became compressed. The baby died. The midwife has now been charged with manslaughter.
Lay midwifery is not certified and not legal in Virginia, but the midwife's lawyer says she should not be held liable because she was simply doing what the parents wanted. I'm with the lawyer. If there was real justice in this world, it is the parents who would be in the dock, charged with criminal self-indulgence."This case is all about the rights of parents to make decisions about the welfare of their children," says Erin Fulham, a Maryland nurse and member of Maryland Friends of Midwives. Welfare of the children? If Nancy Miner had had the slightest concern about the welfare of her child, this at-risk 39-year-old primigravida would have had her child in a hospital where, when the breech birth and compressed cord had been discovered, she could have had an emergency C-section and a good chance of saving her child.
"Should parents have the choice about the health care of their newborn?" asks Fulham rhetorically. Of course. But the Miners' choice, as the subsequent tragedy proved, was hardly about the newborn's health care. It was about the mother's karma. It was about the narcissistic pursuit of "experience," the me generation's insistence on turning every life event - even those fraught with danger for others - into a personalized Hallmark moment.
Miner protests in her own defense that "Everyone was born at home a generation ago. Now they act like it is outrageous." More like 80 years ago, but no matter. Yes, 80 years ago babies were born at home. And they died in droves. Almost one in 10 newborns died then. Less than one in a hundred does now.
Yes, childbirth used to be natural. But so was the accompanying death, disability, deformity and disease. A parent's duty is to avoid these "natural" phenomena by all possible means. Today we have those means. They are called modern medicine.
The whole natural childbirth phenomenon is an astonishing triumph of ideology over experience. Pain is normally - ndeed, "naturally" - something humans try to avoid. And the pain of childbirth is among life's most searing. It is also, today, entirely unnecessary.
My older brother was born 50 years ago in Rio de Janeiro. Postwar Brazil not being a mecca of high-tech obstetrics, my mother delivered without anesthetics and suffered accordingly. Four years later in New York, she had the opportunity to give birth differently. She quite sensibly chose to deliver in a state of blissful unconsciousness. To this day she has no doubt which was the more desirable experience. (As for me, I must have entered the world as zonked as Janis Joplin left it, but with no apparent side effects. I don't even like beer.)
In the '60s and '70s natural childbirth made a comeback, fueled by a peculiar combination of New Age mysticism and macho feminism. Today, thankfully, some feminist writers argue that hospital childbirth is all right, that it is not a betrayal of sisterhood, that there is no earthly reason to willfully embrace pain for the mother and danger for the child as a protest of the alleged patriarchal structure and technological tyranny of modern medicine. They could usefully use as text the case of Nancy Miner.
I will no doubt be charged with lack of sympathy for a bereaved mother. I plead guilty. I reserve my sympathy instead for the lost child. I have as much difficulty mustering sympathy for Miner as I do for Jessica Dubroff's mother, another parent willing to jeopardize - indeed ultimately sacrifice - her child in pursuit of her own (here vicarious) psychic satisfactions. Perhaps if we reserved for these wanton parents less sympathy and more scorn, less understanding and more opprobrium, we might deter some and save a few children.
The Miners have every right to be Luddites, free spirits, foes of modern technology. But the original 18th-century industrial saboteurs sought to destroy the satanic textile mills by throwing their wooden shoes (sabots) into the machines. They didn't throw their children.