Should men get a say in birth choice?

"The certainty in the sentiment that any child is better off dead than disabled rendered my disability invisible."

"The certainty in the sentiment that any child is better off dead than disabled rendered my disability invisible." Photo: Stocksy

Last week, The New York Times asked a panel of seven commentators, 'Is Home Birth Ever a Safe Choice?'

The selection of experts chosen to best debate the answer to this question, a question that pertains to women's bodies and rights to choose, contained—you guessed it—more men than women. (If this concept sounds eerily familiar, that's because it is.)

Tasked to provide an argument for or against the safety of a woman's choice to birth at home were four men and three women.

All four men, all highly placed within the field of obstetrics and gynaecology, answered the question with variations of No. The men's arguments ranged from likening the support of home birth to the "propagation of junk science about vaccines", to reminders of the "potential tragedy" of birth, to conceding that hospital should at least be as "home-like" as possible.

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The three women debaters, two reputable midwives and one mother, were the positive voices arguing Yes to choice. The women argued that while safety is of paramount consideration, there are other factors to take into account including the rights of the woman to choose, the rarity of true emergencies in low-risk birth, and the importance of good support for the mother.

In the US, although numbers of home births continue to grow, only about one per cent of pregnant women choose this option. In Australia, less than one per cent of births are planned home births. And yet the volatility this subject can create would suggest that women in labour are base jumping en masse.

So here's my question: Should men hold valid opinions on what women ought to do with their pregnant bodies?

Although he can undoubtedly be caring and sympathetic, a cisgender man will never spend the best part of a year of his life growing another human inside his body. He will never experience the corporeal and visceral uncertainty, fear, weirdness, quiet joy, or inexplicable gut-knowing.

He may understand it, and sympathise deeply, but a man will never feel the delicate balance of oxytocin, prolactin, beta-endorphins and norepinephrine that steer a woman's body before, during and after labour, the exquisite chemical cocktail that dips and floods according to her environment, emotions and support.

Without a doubt men can make excellent obstetricians and gynaecologists. They can be experts in the field of high-risk pregnancy, in complications that can arise during birth, in reproductive biology.

But they can never feel the weighty, internal curl of a baby against their ribs. 

Just as it's overwhelmingly men who we regularly hear pontificating against abortion, it's hard not to notice that the consistent intonations about the potential perils of a woman pushing a baby from her body also come from those lacking a vagina.

When UK health authorities recently stated that low-risk pregnant woman should be supported to birth at home, The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (whose board is 85 per cent men, just FYI) said, "For the woman whose highest priority is the welfare of the baby, a hospital birth may be preferred." Meanwhile, the Australian College of Midwives (whose board is zero per cent men) say, "[P]lanned home birth is a safe option for women who are at low risk of complications."

But my question also extends beyond the opinions of male OBs. How many women have you heard say, "I wanted a home birth but my husband didn't?" How many women are coerced into, or out of, having an abortion? Talked into or out of breastfeeding? The list of male entitlement to opine over women's reproductive bodies goes on and on.

Men can be allies and advocates for women in birth. They can be highly educated and qualified medical specialists; they can be loving fathers, partners, and friends. And plenty of them are. Yet men cannot physiologically experience the full breadth of what it is to feel instinctively, emotionally, hormonally or even unexplainably driven to make certain choices about the passage of a foetus from your body. A man will never have to live bodily with the consequences or knowledge of your own uterus being out of your hands.

When it comes to freedom of birth choice, the safety argument is stifling and tired and based upon the antiquated belief that womanhood is a pathology. Circular debates about childbirth safety will never result in a definitive 'yes' or 'no' because each woman is different, every birth is different, and birth is only ever as safe as life. Men can listen, suggest, hold concerns and discuss. But they should not be the final voices of authority. The final authority on what she does with her body should always be the woman herself.

So it's time to hand the microphone to women on this.

In the words of Jennifer 'Rachel Green' Aniston: "No uterus, no opinion".

Kim Lock is a mother of two and the author of Peace, Love and Khaki Socks (MidnightSun Publishing, 2013). Her second novel will be released by Pan Macmillan Australia in 2016. Twitter: @KimRLock