It may seem an inevitable part of the cycle of life, but according to a leading obstetrician, women are at risk of losing the ability to give birth naturally.
French doctor Michel Odent has suggested women risk being unable to give birth naturally or even breastfeed their babies in the future because of modern aids.
The 84-year-old, who pioneered the use of birthing pools in hospitals, has argued in his new book Do We Need Midwives? that childbirth has become medicalised to the extent that women are at risk of losing their ability to give birth unaided.
Mr Odent pointed to evidence that women are taking longer in labour than 50 years ago, with huge numbers of pregnant women provided with drugs and surgery in labour.
The medic cited research showing that women giving birth between 2002 and 2008 took two and a half hours longer in the first stage of labour than those who gave birth between 1959 and 1966.
“To me it demonstrates the obvious – that women are losing the capacity to give birth,” he said. “That is the primary phenomenon . . . the number of women who give birth to babies naturally is becoming insignificant.”
Odent is critical of the rise in caesarean sections. In England, 166,081 births – more than a quarter – were by caesarean section between 2013 and 2014, a slight increase on the previous year.
Odent has also criticised the use of drips of synthetic oxytocin on women in labour. He suggested that it was reducing women’s ability to produce the hormone naturally.
The oxytocin hormone initiates labour and plays a crucial role in breastfeeding. But evolution will erase physiological functions that are underused, said Odent, warning that future generations of women may not produce it.
“I believe that the human oxytocin system – oxytocin being the hormone of love, fundamental to birth and bonding, even in adulthood – is growing weaker. The future of the human capacity to give birth is at risk,” he said in a contribution to Antonella Gambotto-Burk’s new book, Mama: Love, Motherhood and Revolution.
In England, the rate of births induced with chemicals such as synthetic oxytocin in 2013 to 2014 rose by 1.7 percentage points to 25 per cent, or 161,726 births.
In the foreword to Gambotto-Burke’s book, Odent controversially suggested that midwives should sit quietly in the corner of a darkened labour room, knitting. This, he argued, would calm the mother-to-be, enabling her body to produce the natural hormones needed to give birth.
Soo Downe, professor in midwifery studies at the University of Central Lancashire, told the Sunday Times: “Odent has in the past said things that seem preposterous but a few years later are borne out by the evidence. Giving women synthetic oxytocin interferes with the balance of hormones. Evidence is growing that there are long-term consequences.”
Odent has previously courted controversy by suggesting it was bad to have the father present at the birth.