Outlaw Births

The series exploring remarkable tales of human experience continues this week with an insight into the growing trend of freebirthing. The film follows the journeys of three pregnant women, in the UK and the US, who have decided to forego traditional medical care and give birth in their own homes with no professional assistance or pain relief.

In South London, Clair, a 26-year-old nurse, discusses the bad experience she had when delivering her first baby in hospital. “They insisted on monitoring me and intervening in ways that I didn’t want,” she says. She was also left alone in the delivery room until the final stages of labour.

When the midwife did check in, says Clair, she was more interested in looking at the machinery than in tending to the patient. “Births are overmanaged, over-medicalised,” she says. “Midwives seem to have lost that empathetic, caring side of their job.”

Due to these experiences, Clair has elected to have her third child at home – without medical assistance. Because the law in the UK is unclear on the topic of freebirthing, many women avoid the medical system altogether and go underground for fear of prosecution. But halfway through her pregnancy, Clair is anxious to make sure that all is well with her unborn baby. At Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital, the senior midwife learns of Clair’s plans and immediately withdraws the clinic’s support. This means that Clair is ineligible to receive the free home-birthing kit given to women using midwives. Instead, Clair will only have her partner, Yasmine, there to help.

Concerned that Yasmine may face prosecution for her involvement in the process, Clair pays a visit to lawyer Beverley Beech. “Any woman who is told that it’s illegal to give birth without a midwife is either being told by somebody who is lying, misinformed or ignorant,” says Beverley. Armed with the knowledge that the law is not designed to prosecute those attending the birth, Clair decides to go ahead with her original plan.

In the US, Heather, a mother of one, opts to steer clear of the medical system altogether. Although freebirthing is legal in all but one state, it remains highly controversial. So Heather has done some research and is conducting her own checks and examinations. Two weeks before her baby is due, she visits Wal-Mart to check her blood pressure on the in-store reader. She also buys a foetalscope – an instrument used to measure the baby’s heartbeat – on the internet. The only other precaution she takes is to seek the advice of an independent midwife on how to resuscitate her newborn if it fails to breathe. Like Clair, Heather experienced problems with hospital delivery. “I don’t know why they were threatening me with a C-section,” she says, before adding that she was able to deliver her son naturally ten minutes later.

The film also follows the story of Clio from Wales. Clio was inspired to have a free birth when she visited Born Free, a website that champions the method. “I came across this picture of a woman giving birth in a swimming pool laughing, and you think to yourself, ‘Wow’,” she explains.

All three women share the common dream of a natural birth in the peaceful surroundings of their own homes. But despite online success stories, the experts are apprehensive about the increasing popularity of this risky practice. Obstetrician Maggie Stott voices her concern: “I worry that if more and more births happen unassisted, that a mother, or more likely a baby, will die as a result.”

About the author

  • BBC One
  • BBC Two
  • BBC Three
  • ITV1
  • ITV2
  • 4
  • E4
  • Film4
  • More4
  • Five
  • Fiver
  • Sky1