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Conflicting attitudes towards risk: Antarctic exploration and giving birth


I was very moved when listening to the last entry in Henry Worsley’s audio diary, made a few days before he so tragically died, having narrowly failed to achieve his goal of becoming the first person to cross the Antarctic alone and unsupported. He was clearly a man of huge courage, vision and dignity.

There might be some who would describe his trek as foolhardy and even insane. There are many of us who could never dream of undertaking such a hazardous enterprise. Nonetheless, probably all of us are full of admiration for someone who was prepared to stretch himself to the limit and show just what human beings are capable of.

Reflecting on Worsley, I found myself making connections with women who choose to birth without medical intervention. These are women who also want to test themselves to the limit, to learn what they can achieve in body and soul, and to ‘have an experience’ that they think will transform their lives. They are often met with the same kind of incredulity as Worsley doubtless did – why on earth would you want to do that? (when you could stay warm at home/have an epidural) – but rarely with the same kind of admiration. They may be accused of selfishness, of sacrificing their baby’s welfare for some unworthy form of self-satisfaction, of perversity and even of being unbalanced.

I suppose the difference is that Henry Worsley put only his own life at stake whereas women who choose not to have intervention in labour are considered as irresponsibly turning their back on medical support with possible ramifications for another person, namely, their unborn/birthing baby.

I have never found women who want straightforward, un-interfered with birth to be irresponsible. Quite the reverse. Like Worsley had to, they make careful preparations. They spend the months of pregnancy researching their options for labour through reading and talking to others, including health professionals, and practising skills of working with their body and their breathing to maximise their capacity to cope with the intensity of labour. They decide on comfort measures and equip themselves with birthing balls, pillows, fans, cool drinks, flannels and heat pads. They take great care of themselves during pregnancy, ensuring that they eat a healthy diet, take plenty of light exercise, rest and avoid environmental toxins and ingesting harmful substances. In other words, they prepare themselves conscientiously for the adventure ahead.

They are not blind to the risks of birth, just as, I am quite sure, Henry Worsley was never blind to the risks of the perilous journey he wanted to undertake. They have made their choice precisely because they have looked at the risks associated with medical intervention and have decided that it is best for their babies that they avoid pumping their bodies full of synthetic oxytocin and opiate drugs, and avoid confining themselves in positions that will not allow the pelvis to stretch to facilitate the birth process.

These are women who take their responsibilities towards their babies very seriously indeed. They are, however, prepared to shoulder the responsibilities of birth themselves; they choose not to hand over to other people.

They do not (generally) look down on other women who make different choices from theirs, who want ‘everything going’ to cope with labour. I doubt if Worsley despised other people (pretty well all of us!) who do not wish to explore the Antarctic in the footsteps of Shackleton. He simply knew that for him, it was important that he put himself to the test.

Giving birth is also testing; some women rejoice in the challenge. Other women will choose different challenges at other stages in their parenting journey. But just as Worsley was supported to go on his personal adventure, I see no reason why we can’t ungrudgingly support women who see birth as their testing ground – especially when, unlike the case of Worsley, the safety of their particular challenge may be at least as great as alternative birth choices.

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