Birth: The Surprising History of how we are Born (Tina Cassidy)

Review by Rebecca Ruelens

I chose Tina Cassidy’s Birth to be the first book to read in my path towards becoming a practicing doula, though not consciously, as this is the only book on the suggested reading list of which there is a copy within any of Centre Wellington’s library system. I am yet to check Guelph Public Library’s catalogue.I found the book to be engaging and informative, and I consider it an important aspect of training to become a doula. It gave a very broad and detailed image of what the birthing process looks like, both trans-historically and trans-culturally.

Before reading the book I discredited the title, doubting that the author would really succeed in “surprising” me. I was feeling knowledgeable about the medicalization of birth, having done a small amount of research including partially of watching “The Business of Being Born” and its sequel during my first pregnancy. However, Cassidy succeeded in surprising me many times throughout the book. “Surprising” seems such an all encompassing word in this sense; when I say this book was surprising, I mean the information that it shares is horrifying, infuriating, enlightening, and motivating. It is incredible the extent to which women have had the birthing process taken away from them. Doctors have been disempowering and humiliating women during a life changing experience of their lives that could instead be uplifting and empowering.

Upon reflection, one of the aspects that stands out as surprising me most is the statistics regarding the prevalence of interventions that were often entirely unnecessary. Some of the most popular interventions have been forceps, episiotomies, various pharmaceutical “pain relief” methods including epidurals and “Twilight Sleep”, induction, and cesarean sections. Many of these interventions have been forced upon non-consenting mothers, or presented as their only option. I was disgusted and surprised by the account of many doctors who refused to believe the importance of hand washing, performing autopsies on women who died of bacterial infections, immediately before delivering a child with those same, unclean fingers. I wept for the women who died at the hands, and I wept for the midwives who were burned as witches; their punishment for easing a woman’s suffering during birth.

Then the mood of the book shifts, and Cassidy surprises me by sharing that almost 20% of women who attended a particular birthing centre aimed at fostering painless and natural childbirth claimed to feel no pain at all while birthing their child. I felt surprised and disappointed by the briefness of the section about placentophagy. Cassidy speaks very little of the wide array of benefits of consuming the placenta – not mentioning that it can increase milk supply, improve recovery from birth, and decrease risk of postpartum depression. Cassidy does not discuss the options to encapsulate your placenta, or to turn it in to a tincture or salve. This was disappointing for me as I will be training to encapsulate placentas and offering that as an extra service related to my position as a doula.

Though I would recommend Birth as an important book for anyone dedicating themselves to helping women birth, I would not recommend this book to expecting parents, due to the graphic and upsetting content. Some aspects of the book could increase anxiety and fear regarding childbirth, such as descriptions of craniotomies and amputating stillborn fetus’ limbs, in order to more easily pull them out. The information presented in this book could also make mothers feel unsafe about their birthing options, especially those living in areas without midwives, birthing centres, and doulas.