Thursday, December 18, 2008

childbirth: a half-baked product of evolution?

Having made it clear that I am outraged by this suggestion last week (see previous post), I would like to spend a little time working through the idea.

My understanding is that birth is indeed "a normal function of life". This does not mean that birth is meant to be uneventful or without challenge, any more than breathing, or any other normal function, is. Breathing can, in certain situations, be linked to life-threatening situations, as can birth.

The writer loses my respect with the outlandishly simplistic assertion that "The belief that nature intended women to give birth in a certain way only holds if you believe intelligent design rather than science. If you believe in evolution, ..." The issues of childbirth are not about belief in theoretical frameworks that seek to explain life through evolution, intelligent design, or indeed, creation. Childbirth is a fact of life. Intelligent design is a concept that has been used in recent decades, particularly by educators in the US, in the creation-evolution debate. The observation that nature 'intended' women to give birth in a certain (natural, physiological) way has nothing at all to do with a belief system.

Regardless of how we happened to get here, one of the realities of modern human existence is that there is STILL no safer way, physically and emotionally, for most mothers to give birth to their babies than by working in harmony with natural processes. Only when a valid reason exists to interfere with the natural process does the possibility arise that the risks of intervening may be less than the risks of doing nothing. When a point is reached in the critical decision making for a particular mother-baby pair, the subsequent progress and outcomes will be irrevocably influenced by the decision that is made.

Darwinian principles of natural selection, when applied to human reproduction, would result in natural limitations to the individuals for whom natural conception, gestation and childbirth is difficult or dangerous. Natural selection also applies to other mammals that produce relatively large offspring. A small bitch who is carrying pups from a genetically larger dog will not have good rates of success, or reproductive fitness, under natural whelping conditions.

In Western cultures there is little natural selection in human reproduction today. Women who in previous generations would be unable to bear a child are assisted and supported. If we detect distress in the fetus, or failure to progress by a labouring woman, the decision to operate is quickly facilitated.

Instead of mourning the discomforts and potential reproductive hazzards associated with "fat brains and narrow hips" which apparently compromise "the ease of pushing out offspring", I would like to briefly mention a few of the features of the natural process in childbearing which can only be described as awesome. My list of marvels includes courtship and loving; the nesting instinct; spontaneous onset of labour at Term; the changes in a woman's behaviour in physiologically normal labour; the spontaneous adjustments made by a newborn baby at birth; the separation and expulsion of the placenta; the search by the baby for the mother's breast and the psychological attachment of mother and infant; and many more. Each of these natural processes, within physiological birthing, may be disturbed and inhibited by interference, with ongoing consequences to the mother and baby.

As far as I know these potentials have been part of the childbearing process for as long as any historical record exists. The changes we know of have been in our ability to intervene in the natural process. Whether we women reached our current physical and psychological makeup as a result of natural selection, survival of the fittest, and evolution, or whether our first parents had the same natural processes that we possess, is outside the realm of recorded history, and is therefore open to congecture.

For those who have read thus far, I am happy to put it on the record that I accept the Christian belief that our God is "creator of heaven and earth" (from the Apostles Creed). I do not claim to understand HOW God created. I think it reasonable that the creature (I) may not be able to fully comprehend the work of the creator (God).


Stitch Sista said...

I'm really enjoying reading your thoughts on these issues.

Would be even better to see them shared were you to send them into the Age!

Joy Johnston said...

Thankyou Stitch Sista.
I find that only one in about 10 letters to the editor are successful at the Age, and so far haven't cracked the 'Opinion' page. Joy