By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
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By Melanie Asmar
Shanley's voice is powerful with intent as she delivers an hour-long, stream-of-consciousness lecture about her life's work. Bouncing babies on knees and assisting toddlers with crayons, the ICAN mothers listen politely as Shanley talks about how childbirth is inherently safe and painless, but society has turned the natural process into a sinister medical event.
"So I do believe that you are given a baby and you are also given the knowledge of how to birth that baby. And I don't think it has to be this deep, dark, mysterious process," she says, explaining that birth, like sex, is a natural bodily function and even involves the same sensitive organs. "How do you know when to push? To me it isn't any more mysterious than how to know when to thrust when having sex. You just do what feels right for you."
The prospect of eschewing even the most basic prenatal care -- as Shanley did with each of her pregnancies -- makes a few of the mothers uncomfortable. Shanley's husband, David, sits in a chair next to her, his gray ponytail bobbing as he nods approvingly at several points in his wife's speech. It was David who first introduced Laura to the concept of giving birth without an attendant, back when she was a freshman at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
David Shanley had always been interested in how the mind affects the body, and had read the book Childbirth Without Fear, written by English obstetrician Grantly Dick-Read in 1942. Dick-Read, who's credited with founding the natural childbirth movement, had noticed how women who felt inhibited during labor often had difficult births. He associated this with the fight-or-flight response in humans, a reaction that causes them to pant and sweat when confronted with a threat or fear.
"When you're afraid and you turn white, it's because you're telling your body 'danger,' and your body is taking your blood and oxygen and diverting it into your arms and legs to fight or run," Laura says, adding that the same thing can occur to a woman during birth. "So what happens to a frightened woman in labor is that her uterus is literally white, and it doesn't have the fuel it needs." This fear can be triggered by an unfamiliar maternity ward, or doctors or nurses performing uncomfortable procedures.
It's like you're having sex and someone knocks on the door, she explains, "or comes in and says, 'What's your Social Security number?'" It's a moment-killer, as they say, and blood flows away from the organs.
The theory of birth pain as a psychosomatic construction had a huge influence on Laura. "It made so much sense to me," she says. "Here is this thing that is insuring the continuation of the race, and it's going to be fraught with peril. What kind of sense does that make?"
When Laura became pregnant with her first child, the couple initially considered getting a midwife. Laura came from a medical family; her father was a doctor and past president of the American College of Rheumatology, her mother did medical research, and her sister is a labor and delivery nurse. Still, she says, she "was always terrified of doctors growing up. I never looked at doctors as someone who was going to save me." And even though she insists she's not anti-doctor or even anti-midwife, she decided she didn't need medical help with her birth. "It was like, 'You know what? Let's just do it ourselves,'" Laura remembers.
While in labor with her first child, Laura meditated and got so "within herself" that she almost forgot they'd invited a bunch of friends over to witness the birth, including a filmmaker from CU. Her body was telling her not to let anyone touch her. She felt like a wild animal. When she sensed the baby's head was emerging, she walked over to the bed and gave birth on her hands and knees rather than on her back. The filmmaker didn't even have time to turn on the camera.
After that, Laura decided that she should give birth completely alone. "I just realized that to bring anyone else into the room would alter the process," she says.
Fifteen years later, she published Unassisted Childbirth. Though the book continues to sell modestly, Laura says she's not interested in pushing freebirthing to greater mainstream acceptance. And even among practitioners of natural childbirth, who strive to avoid the epidurals and labor-inducing drugs so common in modern maternity wards, the undertaking is regarded as controversial.
But for Laura Shanley and like-minded women, unassisted birth is the logical next step in natural childbirth, making it even more natural. Although exact figures are hard to come by, some proponents estimate the number of intentional unassisted births in North America at around 5,000 a year -- still a minuscule amount given the United States' annual birth rate of 4 million.
As a community, freebirthers are generally distrustful of formality and standardization, attributes they associate with the cold, assembly-line drive of corporate hospitals. These women prefer to communicate through informal networks on the Internet, where their conversation is punctuated by the radical rhetoric of motherhood empowerment.