Reproductive Autonomy: What is a Free Birth?
If you read our articles often, you’ve probably heard the saying “Your body, your choice” or “Your baby, your body, your choice.” This is the idea that when it comes to reproductive health, every person deserves the option to make choices about their body and healthcare from an informed, educated place. This is especially true when it comes to birth. Pregnancy and birth is one of the most exciting, nerve-wracking, intense, and intimate times in a person’s life. With it comes a lot of questions, options, and uncertainties.
One of the biggest choices that a pregnant person faces is where they birth, and who is present during the birth. You might be thinking – you’ve got the hospital, home births, and maybe a birth center, but is there another option? Yes, there is, and it’s called a “free birth”.
What is a Free Birth?
A free birth is when someone goes through labor and birth without a medical professional present. They would typically just have their partner or a couple of select loved ones around. People who free birth may also have a doula – a non-medical birth professional who provides educational and emotional support to people through their journey.
Free births usually happen in the person’s home. Although some people may choose to give birth in another place because of convenience or the significance of a place. Like, say someone lives in a rural area and would like to be closer to a hospital in case of an emergency. Individuals approach free birth differently. Some people might go for a couple medical appointments or ultrasounds, while others never seek outside medical support.
Why Do People Have Free Births?
The truth of the matter is that people have been “free-birthing” for as long as humans have been around, which is one of the reasons that people will often advocate for having one. There is often conversation around “returning to nature or back to their roots”. As birthing in hospitals has become the norm in many places, it’s caused people to create terms to describe something that humans have always done. Every pregnant person has their own reasons for why they choose to birth where they do. People who free birth may have had a previous traumatic birth experience that they wish to avoid. They might want to have a home birth and for some reason don’t have the option to have a midwife there. This could be because of financial or other logistical issues.
People who free birth often have a belief in their body’s ability to birth without outside support or interference. Many people view birth as a spiritual experience that they need to face themselves or with just their loved ones or partners present. Just like everyone has their own reasons to choose to birth a certain way, they also don’t have to justify them to anyone.
What are The Risks of Free Birth?
Although people have had free births for forever, that doesn’t mean they were always smooth sailing. Infant and maternal mortality rates have gone down significantly since the rise of modern medicine. Some of the most revolutionary changes were also the most simple like handwashing and sanitation. One of the biggest risks that someone faces when having a free birth is them or the baby having an undiagnosed medical condition that could be potentially harmful come birth. Obstetric emergencies can happen during labor even if there weren’t previous warning signs. Homebirth midwives know what signs to watch for and don’t hesitate to transfer to a hospital during an emergency, or if it seems like the right thing to do.
These are some of the potential emergencies that can happen during birth:
- Preeclampsia and eclampsia (high blood pressure in pregnancy/postpartum, which can be potentially fatal).
- Postpartum bleeding and hemorrhaging.
- The baby being in an abnormal like in the case of shoulder dystocia or breech.
- Damage to the pelvic floor or perineum.
- Cord issues with the baby: cord prolapse, compression, or being wrapped around the neck
In many cases, medical professionals can take steps to handle these emergencies, although some things are out of our human control.
There’s No Perfect Solution
Although it poses obvious risks to go through labor and birth without a medical professional present, this topic is not black and white. There are many risks of birthing in a hospital as well like potentially facing unnecessary medical interventions, an increased risk of infection, facing medical racism and discrimination, and the discomfort of not being in your own space. In these cases, you might be wondering why people wouldn’t just get a homebirth midwife then.
There are quite a few reasons why someone might still opt for a free birth over having a midwife at home. They may want total bodily autonomy which they still don’t feel like they can have with a midwife. It could be because of financial reasons – in certain areas, midwives can be incredibly expensive and may not be covered by insurance.
Another reason is that the pregnant person might be “risked out”. This is when a home birth midwife can’t legally take on the client anymore because of certain restrictions they have on their license. This is dependent on the region where the midwife practices. Say in the United States, there are certain areas where homebirth midwives can’t attend breech births, twin births, or if someone is over 42 weeks gestation.
Pregnancy and birth are full of unknowns, but so is the rest of life. Unfortunately, some things happen during birth that are oftentimes unpredictable and possibly unpreventable. As much as we can advocate for the necessity of having a medical professional present during this exciting time, there are totally valid reasons why people choose to free birth.
In those cases, we urge you to listen to your intuition and your body. Don’t hesitate to seek medical support when it feels necessary. It’s also vital to do as much research and education as possible by taking birth education classes and having an emergency plan in place.
Natasha (she/they) is a full spectrum doula, reproductive health content creator, and sexual wellness consultant. Her work focuses on deconstructing the shame, stigma, and barriers people carry around birth, sex, and beyond, to help people navigate through their lives with more pleasure, softness, and sensuality. You can connect with Natasha on IG @spectrumoflovedoula.