Monday, August 25, 2008

Book Review: "Unassisted Childbirth" by Laura Shanley

"Unassisted Childbirth"
Laura Shanley
1994, 151 pages

Just when I think I've caught up with my book reviews, I finish another book!

Of course, I'm only fooling myself. I have 30+ books waiting to be reviewed that I read before I started this blog. I could review books 24/7 for the next week and not be done! And I know I'm not reviewing books as thoroughly as I could. My reviews are more "mini-reviews" - regrettable, but more fitted to the time constraints of the mother of a toddler.

And so, on to "Unassisted Childbirth"!

Unassisted Childbirth (UC) refers to homebirth at which there is no doctor or midwife present. The UC movement is a small subset within the homebirth/alternative birth movement. It is regarded by the alternative childbirth movement with mixed emotions - some love it as the ultimate free expression of birth, some rue it as that which gives homebirthers a bad reputation.

I should state that I am an unequivocal supporter of unassisted childbirth. A mother has the inalienable right to birth her children in any location and in any manner which she wishes. If she wants a hospital birth, she has the right to a hospital birth. If in a birth center, at a birth center. If at home with a midwife, then at home with a midwife. If at home with her husband, then at home with her husband. If alone under the moon in Yosemite, then alone under the moon in Yosemite!!!! This isn't too hard of a concept.

I have several friends and acquaintances who are unassisted birthers, and I respect their methods and philosophies highly.

Unassisted birthers are generally pretty underground, just because of the strong social disapproval which generally follows the announcement that one is planning an unassisted birth. So this movement is not a particularly visible movement.

I find unassisted birth intriguing, but it's not for me. When I'm in labor, I want to be surrounded by women. Lots of women. Lots and lots and lots of women - and I LOVE midwives. The more the merrier!


I first met Laura Shanley last year at a birth conference and have been absolutely in love with her ever since. It was rather interesting how I met her. I had actually never heard of her up until the evening before the conference, when DH and I decided to watch a birth video I had picked up randomly from the library. Ta da! It was all about Laura Shanley. Me: "Hey, I think that's the woman who's speaking tomorrow!" And the next day, there she was in the flesh!

I got to speak to her for about ten minutes and absolutely loved her. Laura Shanley is a woman who is beautiful both in person and in spirit, and I have been an admirer of hers ever since.

You can see Laura's website "Born Free" here:

Born Free

(There are some great UC videos on this site).

You can see Laura's current blog here:

Letters from Laura

Laura is, somewhat unintentionally, the unofficial leader of the unassisted childbirth movement. The two phrases are inextricably linked together! If you read up on Laura Shanley, you're basically reading up on unassisted childbirth.

This book is not a "how-to" manual. I had rather hoped that it was, but it is not. If you're looking for a how-to guide, I suggest instead Elizabeth Davis's "Heart and Hands," which is not a UC guide but which is a beginning midwifery text written at the level of lay understanding.

Laura spends time in her opening chapters detailing the myriad problems with modern hospital birth: induction, insistence on the supine position during labor and delivery, IV, pubic hair shaving and enemas (less common now but still performed in about 10% of births), amniotomy, fetal monitors, drugs used in labor/delivery, directed pushing, artificial labor augmentation, frequent vaginal exams, episiotomy, instrumental delivery, cesarean section, suctioning, early cord clamping, insistence of immediate delivery of the placenta, vitamin K and eye drops and separation of mother and baby after birth. This section is clear and accurate and well-documented.

Laura includes a chapter of unassisted childbirth stories, some intentional and some accidental, and completes the book with the stories of her own unassisted births (all of her children were birthed unassisted).

Laura and her husband David have been put through the wringer over their beliefs. Besides all of the negative publicity they receive, they had the charming experience of having their firstborn baby taken from them by force by the police for almost a week for the crime of birthing outside of a hospital. They were harassed by law enforcement and attacked verbally. Problems also developed after one of the Shanley's babies died after birth due to birth defects, something which would have happened even if Laura had birthed in a hospital, but which was attributed in the media to her "irresponsible birth practices." One way or another, this family has had a tough time of it!

The rest of the book is devoted to an explanation of Laura's worldview and explanation of thought processes leading up to the decision to birth unassisted. It is complicated and definitely unorthodox. Do I agree with her? Hmmm... no, not really. As a conservative Christian, I cannot agree with many of her beliefs and views. However, I do agree with her in some aspects: Women do have the right to birth how they want to. Childbirth can be pain-free (usually isn't, but can be). Childbirth is not as dangerous as it is portrayed in the media. The mind is a powerful instrument over the body. And childbirth is an ultimate expression of love.

I recommend this book with some reservations. It's a great resource; I don't agree with it all, and I'm not sure that all the worldview material was necessary. But I love Laura Shanley and respect her greatly, and this is a good starter book toward understanding the UC movement.

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