This quarter’s MIDIRS Midwifery Digest includes a number of articles using this month’s Jubilee celebrations to look back on the last 60 years. Here’s a taster of Sheila Kitzinger’s passionate recollections and reflections:
The last 60 years by Sheila Kitzinger.
Excitement and the buzz of working together to reclaim birth for women, speaking out and knowing that we are heard, creating a dialogue between those in power and women
at the receiving end, the recognition among mothers, doctors and midwives that birth is a political issue, not just a matter of being kind to women — all this has been interspersed over the last 60 years with despondency and frustration — the feeling that every welcome advance has been illusory, and that nothing has been achieved. Maybe we should have just lain back and let medical professionals get on with it instead of wasting our energy fighting battles.
I started to write my first book after the birth of my fourth baby at home. The challenge I faced was to create a language that conveyed the multifaceted sensations of labour and birth both physically and emotionally. To find words for the rush of energy experienced as contractions squeeze the uterus, the sensation of power that built mountains released into your body as the baby’s head crowned, as if in a ring of fire, ‘the birth passion’ (Kitzinger 1962).
In the United States (US), medicalisation of birth was well under way by the 1960s. Women were strapped down, wrists and ankles tied, flat on their backs, drugged into a state of ‘twilight sleep’, sliced open from the vagina toward the anus, and delivered by forceps. New interventions were proposed intending to make birth easier but many of these led to other procedures that made birth more and more complicated and frightening.
Practices introduced in the US as part of the medical management of birth have spread across the world. In Britain a switch from home to hospital took place. Fifty years ago around a third of women had their babies at home, today only three in 100 do so.
As birth was subjected to institutional management, women were treated within strict time limits and dealt with as if they were containers to be opened and relieved of their contents: attention was concentrated on a bag of muscle and a birth canal, rather than the person.
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