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Baby Dies in Unassisted Home Birth

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Ronda Kaysen: Janet Fraser, a leading advocate of home birth, lost her baby during childbirth at her home in Australia. Her tragedy stands as a stark reminder that forgoing medical care in childbirth is risky business.

woman having baby at home

Fraser gave birth without a midwife or doctor attending, in what is known as a "free birth." The baby apparently suffered a cardiac arrest shortly after being delivered in a water birth on March 27. An ambulance was called, but paramedics were unable to revive the infant. Police are investigating the death.

Fraser runs the Joyous Birth website, a home birth site that advocates free birth where women give birth in a home setting completely free of any medical support. A staunch critic of medical intervention in birth, she describes caesarian sections and episiotomies as "birthrape" and genital mutilation. The Australian College of Midwives has criticized Fraser for "recklessly" promoting free-birthing on her site.

In a chilling preamble, Fraser spoke with a reporter for the Sunday Age five days before the birth. Already in the early stages of labor, she said that she planned to deliver her baby at home and said she had never seen a doctor during her pregnancy, even though her first baby had been delivered by emergency caesarian.

When asked if she'd alerted a hospital to the fact that she was in labor, she replied: "When you go on a skiing trip, do you call the hospital to say, 'I'm coming down the mountain, can you set aside a spot for me in the emergency room?' I don't think so."

In the days following the baby's death, Joyous Birth posted an announcement of the grim news. But the posting was later removed. Neither Fraser nor her partner has returned reporters calls for comment.

Clearly, this is a tragic story and Fraser paid a heavy toll for her convictions. But her decision to forgo medical care entirely -- even after her labor continued for a week -- is tantamount to reckless endangerment of a child.

In the past century, childbirth has gone from being the single most dangerous event in a woman's life to something routine. We can thank Western medicine for that.

Western medicine has its shortcomings. Medical intervention is too readily used in childbirth and women are often treated with little respect in the hospital. There are some good arguments for home birth, reduced medical intervention being one of them. But reacting to the problem of too much intervention with no medical assistance at all is absurd. Fraser's "free birth" argument, which on the surface appears feminist, is actually the opposite. It doesn't empower women to take control of their own bodies. It sends them and their babies into the dark ages of medical care - where women give birth with no medical care at all and face the very real possibility of death as a consequence.

next: Rape Charges Possible in Sandra Cantu Case
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