Friday, July 3, 2009

Maternal-Fetal Conflict

Critiques of homebirth sometimes rest on a (flawed) assumption of maternal-fetal conflict (which is also invoked to describe situations with substance abuse or other risky behavior). In the Fall 2007 issue of CfM News, Board member Willa Powell wrote about maternal-fetal conflict in response to an ABC segment on unassisted birth. She wrote:
[quoting the expert physician interviewed for the segment] "The few hours of labor are the most dangerous time during the entire lifetime of that soon to be born child. Because of this, I would argue, all soon to be born children have a right to access to immediate cesearean delivery, and women who insist on denying this right are irresponsible."

This was the only professional opinion in the program on unassisted birth, and he set up a typical expression of an obstetric community belief: the “maternal-fetal conflict.” The notion is that there are two “patients”, where the mother’s desires are sometimes in conflict with the well-being of the baby, and that the obstetrician has a moral/professional obligation to abandon the mother in favor of the baby.

I have to remind myself that Dr. Chervenak is setting up a false choice. In fact, this scenario is a “doctor-patient conflict”. The mother wants what’s best for herself and her child, but she disagrees with her doctor about what is, in fact, best. Women are making choices they believe are best for themselves and best for their babies, but those choices are often at odds with what doctors consider best for both, and certainly at odds with what is best for the obstetrician!
In the book Birth Tides, the author discusses maternal-fetal conflict:
According to obstetricians, the infant's need to be born in what they have defined as a safe environment, i.e. an obstetric unit, takes precedence over the mother's desire to give birth in what doctors have described as the comfort of her own home. It is a perspective that pits the baby's needs against those of the mother, setting 'overriding' physical needs against 'mere' psychological ones. It is rooted in the perception that the baby is a passenger in the carriage of its mother's body--the 'hard and soft passages,' as they are called. It is also rooted in the notion of the mind-body split, in the idea that the two are separate and function, somehow, independently of each other, just like the passenger and the passages. While women may speak about 'carrying' babies, they do not see themselves as 'carriers,' any more than they regard their babies as 'parasites' in the 'maternal environment.' If you see your baby as a part of you, there can be no conflicts on interests between you.
I previously linked to a book review that explores this concept of the more aptly described "obstetric conflict" in even more depth.

Tomorrow is Independence Day and I think it is fitting to remember that mother and baby dyads are NOT independent of each other. I have written before about the concept of mamatoto--or, motherbaby--the idea that mother and baby are a single psychobiological organism whose needs are in harmony (what's good for one is good for the other).

As Willa concluded in her CfM News article, "...we must reject the language that portrays a mother as hostile to her baby, just because she disagrees with her doctor."

CfM Blogger


k. emvee said...

Hi Molly,

Where does the term mamatoto come from? Is it the combination of the Swahili words for mother and child (mtoto)? I've been curious about this for awhile.


CfM Molly said...

Yes, that's right!