Even though I was determined that my TV drama roster was full, I caved and started watching Off the Map. And I admit it – I like it. That is, with the exception of the third episode and its totally botched, overly dramatized, hellishly inaccurate portrayal of birth.
It went something like this: woman in labour, goes to the jungle-clinic where they slap an EFM on her and require an ultrasound to determine the baby’s presentation. The EFM – as EFMs tend to do – goes ‘beep’. That single beep is enough to indicate to the wonderful American (male) doctor that the baby is in imminent danger and an emergency C-section is the only answer. Never mind that they can barely create a sterile field, or that none of the doctors has been identified as a qualified anesthetist, cutting the mom’s abdomen open on the patio of a jungle hut is deemed (within 3 seconds of that single beep) to be the ONLY way to proceed. On they charge and baby comes out, hooray, a medical miracle!
But come on, this is a show where they gave a guy an IV of coconut milk when they ran out of blood. It’s not supposed to be realistic, it’s supposed to be dramatic and entertaining, right?
I get that. I really do. But here’s my beef with birth à la Hollywood – not only is birth the only health topic portrayed on TV that a viewer is likely to experience first hand, just about EVERY viewer is guaranteed to experience it. And, as sad as it is, a lot of people take in this message and never question it. So when they (or their partner) are in labour (albeit, presumably not in the jungle) and that EFM goes beep, and the doctor says it has to be a C-section, that seems totally reasonable to them. Even for those of us who do question and search before our babies are born, it’s difficult to forget the scenarios we’re so familiar with and accept something we’ve never seen – rarely even heard of – as possible for us.
It doesn’t matter that they gave the guy the coconut transfusion because no one will ever be in a situation where they have to choose coconut milk or death. Just like it doesn’t matter that Grey’s Anatomy once showed Izzy cracking open a guy’s skull on the side of the freeway with a drill she grabbed from the back of a pick-up. None of the crazy, “you’ll never guess what they did” scenarios about anything else matter because it’s all so far removed from the realm of possibility that no one will be hurt by seeing those scenarios. Birth is different.
There are a myriad of reasons why the C-section rates in North America are astronomically high, but patient perception that major surgery is a normal and safe way to have a baby is one of the biggies. Women have lost confidence in our ability to give birth; to do the most important thing that our bodies are designed to do; the one thing that men can not do. We’ve come to believe that we’re in mortal peril from the moment the contractions start, until the moment that the heroic (and usually male) doctor rescues us.
If we want to take birth back, we have to start with our birth stories. We have to stop showing birth as a catastrophe and show it as an achievement – a female achievement – and we have to stop making men the heroes of our stories.