Natural vs. Unnatural Birth Across Cultures


We learned in this weeks lecture that birth and death were a normal part of life, its continuously happening. Cultures shape these events physically, biologically, and psychologically. Recently, however, medicine has gained significant power and control over individuals. Births and deaths are now more considered to be medical events, and therefore, is creating a change in our physical, biological, and psychological health. The shift from home to hospital-based medical care is quite interesting. Up until the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, birth was typically between the mother, father, and perhaps a midwife. Midwives used herbs to help with the birthing because they believed that herbs were a normal part of everyday life and did not consider it as medicine.

Once the late 1800’s and early 1900’s came around, the field of medicine was becoming the norm. Through the 1900’s, biomedicine becomes dominant for birthing, dying, food, and more. We are beginning to live in a world that has the assumption that we can not fix ourselves, but medicine can. The Flexner report in 1910, led to the closing of many medical schools, especially those who are uneducated women and black physicians. During this time, other countries still practiced medicine and even branched out to other fields of health, like homeopathy, osteopaths, and chiropractors. Due to this, medicalization in the US led to the suppression of “alternative” medical ideas.

We have also learned this week that there are several ramifications of “medicalized” versus “regular life” for the Inuit, Hmong, and for mainstream Americans. In the lecture and article,  The Inuit Way: A Guide to Inuit Culture, the Inuits experienced excessive tension during the twentieth century when the culture began to adapt to the modern world. In the early 1950’s, the federal government forced the Inuit’s to move into permanent communities. The federal government provided schools, health care and material attractions of the modern world. The Inuits were not used to this change since they came from a small, family-based groupings that traveled seasonally to find food. Learning a new language, changing their responsibilities and behavior to please the government, and alter the process of birth, were all very stressful factors to the Inuits. There were many traditional birthing techniques that the Inuits have practiced for many years, some of them being that the birthing woman is in charge, there were birthing huts, they would put a whale in baby’s mouth that signified hopes that the child would become a good hunter, they had a naming ceremony, the mother would breast feed for at least three years, and so on. Changing these practices to where the mother was not in charge, she could not stay in contact with the baby whenever she wanted, was not with the rest of her family, could not speak the same language as the doctors and physicians, and more, was also very frustrating and stressful (Boult, 2012).

The Hmong had a similar experience as the Inuits. In the book, The Spirit Catches You, and You Fall Down, it talks about a Hmong family that was treated unfairly.  Foua and Nao Kao, are the parents of Lia, who is two years old and has epilepsy. Foua and Nao Kao believes that their daughters illness was caused by the loss of her soul and would be treated more effectively by animal sacrifice. Unfortunately, this cultures beliefs did not match with the doctors and biomedical beliefs. Therefore, the doctor, Neil Ernst, requested that Lia would be placed into foster care. The mother suffered significantly and the father was extremely upset. The mother was eventually able to visit her daughter at her foster-parents house. The foster mom realized that Lia’s mother was very loving and kind and that the CPS made a huge mistake. After some time, the parents were able to obtain their daughter back once they followed the rules that the CPS administered to them, which was giving Lia her medicine multiple times daily (Macmillan, 2012).

This fairly new way of living is also affecting the Americans. Some of them are returning back to natural birth, but the majority of us are not. Having these new technologies that tell us the gender of the baby before birth, the overall health of the baby before birth, being able to have a C-section, the ability to induce labor, having access to epidurals, and much more create a sense of comfort that attract many American individuals. While many lives can be saved through biomedical technology, many problems can arise as well. Often, these problem can even be unseen, like whats happening psychologically, biologically, and physically. For example, what are the effects of not being able to be in contact with your baby at all times after birth? Hopefully, continuing studies regarding this topic will address these potential problems.

I read an article, Why Natural Childbirth, and read that women are more than capable of giving birth naturally and that sabotaging nature’s plan can have some risks. They discuss that women can give birth, have a deep intuitive instinct about birth, and when comfortable and relaxed, are able to give birth without interventions and suffering.

Boult, David. The Inuit way: A guide to Inuit culture. 1992.

Fadiman, Anne. The spirit catches you and you fall down: A Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures. Macmillan, 2012.

Lothian, J. A. 2000. Why natural childbirth? The Journal of Perinatal Education 9 (4): 44-6.


3 thoughts on “Natural vs. Unnatural Birth Across Cultures

  1. The point you made about birth and death becoming medical events and affecting our biological, physical, and mental health is very true. Until recently, birth and death were just a natural part of life; both events were celebrations of life as apposed to scientific occurrences. When I think about the process of giving birth, there is always a doctor that comes to mind. That is usually the only person that in my mind, seems qualified to handle this situation. But who is to say that someone has to go to medical school in order to handle a situation that people have been doing on their own for thousands of years. Midwives are trained birthing experts, but are not respected in the same sense as a physician. In our society we only consider the physical harm of birth, we don’t consider what it means spiritually or culturally. While taking the Inuit women down south for their births seemed like the safest plan for the physical protection of the child and mother, it was not considered whether this forced removal was beneficial emotionally or culturally. The ramifications on the relationships and family bonding, so highly honored in their society, could be extensive.

  2. Hey Taylor,
    I liked your inclusion of not just the effects on birthing for the Inuit and Hmong, but the cultural ramifications discussed this week. We saw the proof of the stressful effects after the Canadian government forced the Inuit to become a ‘settled’ people, which is an extremely ethnocentric thing to do. The government, like many governments trying to ‘settle’ a land tend to think their way is the best way, and it leads to forcing changes onto a people when they don’t have a clue the effects it could have on them. As for the natural birth thing you ended on, I completely agree that more studies need to be performed so we can see the real effect some of these things have on birthing and on postpartum mothers. I know my Aunt had all four of her boys (one at a time) on a scheduled, drug induced labor (with epidural and the associated things to reduce pain) and they are all as great as 4 boys at the same age can be. But my older sister didn’t like the idea of being on drugs or anything else when she gave birth to her daughter, so I know she gave a natural, drug free birth in a hospital. She wanted to do it home, like the increasing trend of natural births, but was discouraged from that by pretty much everyone she asked in our family. Her next child, should she choose to have one, will likely be either the same route as her first one, or will be an at home birth if she refuses to change her mind, since the first one went so smoothly. To me, and many others, what is really important is that every expectant mother is aware of her options and the risks with each one, and she should be allowed to make a decision that she finds most comfortable.

  3. I liked how you mentioned the medical shift America has seen in the birthing process. I find it interesting how the whole process took place. Especially how one single report seemed to be the driving force that created the changes. Although I personally believe the system we have today is probably the most efficient and safest, I don’t understand why the Canadian government forced it upon the Inuit. I can understand trying to educate the Inuit on our process that improve birth outcomes, but forcing it on them, causing them to abandon all there cultural traditions does not seem right to me. As we have seen elsewhere in this class what works for one set of people does not necessarily work for another set of people. That is important to take into consideration someone’s beliefs and traditions before making assumptions. And as we saw, when the Inuit returned to their traditional practices the birth outcomes where just about as safe as flying the mothers south. Also although I believe in our style of births, I agree that certain things are unnecessary. In my article it talked about how C-sections are becoming too common and are being performed in unnecessary situations. So although I am a believer I do think there are some areas of the medical process that should be reevaluated.

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