The best and worst places to give birth

The joy of childbirth has in many cases been replaced by technology, one writer says in a book examining births worldwide.

Story highlights

  • Countries replicate the American way of birth or continue with traditional methods
  • 99% of maternal deaths each year occur in developing countries
  • The focus on medical birthing procedures may distract from its emotional power
  • Sweden is a standout birthing country
My mother gave birth to my older brother in a hospital in Malawi in rural East Africa, where she and my dad were in the Peace Corps. Then she ran herself a hot bath and shared a bowl of curry with her neighbor.
When she had me, two and a half years later, she chose a freestanding birthing center, 45 minutes from our house in upstate New York, where I popped out after two hours of labor and only a couple of pushes. She went home a few hours later.
Both of these birth experiences, she always said, were joyous, easy and free of angst -- there was no medical establishment pressuring her to give birth in a particular way, or in a particular time frame.
So when she started hearing about how most people give birth in America today -- the C-section rate is around 34% and medical interventions are practically par for the course -- she thought perhaps America had lost sight of the best ways to have babies.
Surely, she thought, other countries and cultures know better how to handle this most basic human experience.
"I assumed there would be a better model in the developing world, based on my experience in Malawi," my mother, Helaine Selin, told me, "a more humane and mother-friendly way of giving birth."
She set out to find how women give birth in the non-Western world, which culminated in a book she edited called "Childbirth Across Cultures: Ideas and Practices of Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Postpartum."
What she discovered deeply surprised her ... and not necessarily in a good way.
Many cultures and countries had either replicated the American way of birth -- we have exported the C-section model to many remote regions -- or they have clung to traditional methods that are, at best, disrespectful of women; at worst, the methods are downright dangerous.
All around the world, she found, childbirth is a battlefield, and women have to fight everyone from surgeons to mothers-in-law for control over their bodies and their births.
Traditional childbirth: womanly ways aren't always safe
Some 536,000 maternal deaths occur each year, 99% of them in developing countries. Childbirth in countries that haven't modernized the birth experience is still very much women's work, attended mostly by women who aren't always trained in modern methods of hygiene.
While the camaraderie of women in childbirth is commendable, even enviable, childbirth in these places can be oppressive,