A Scientific Skeptic Watches “Born in the Wild” (Alaska Episode)

Born in the Wild

“Born in the Wild” was a television series that ran on Lifetime during early 2015. It consisted of six episodes that featured mothers who rejected mainstream medicine and instead chose to give birth outside hospital or medical centers. Not just a homebirth, but giving birth outside in different hazardous environments, including a remote area of Alaska where it takes a rescue helicopter 30 minutes to reach, in a desert or in the middle of the winter. It was a stunning celebration of scientific ignorance and narcissism where parents prioritized their own birthing experience over the health of their baby.

The show opens up with some facts about hospital births and the rationale for the TV show: “Over 98% of all U. S. births take place in hospitals. Some women are choosing to have a very different experience. This shows document their journey.” They even add a warning: “Some scenes may be too intense for some viewers.” The intro theme has the following male voice over: “Modern parents giving birth in the wilderness like their ancestors. No hospitals. No surgical intervention. No drugs. Just a choice. To return to the primal roots of humanity.”

Giving birth in the remote wilderness of Alaska

The first episode of the series is called “Alaska: Remote and Unassisted” The episodes opens up with widescreen shots of the Alaska wilderness, snowy mountains, lakes, and coyotes. These tranquil scenery are overlaid with the sound of a woman quivering in pain. Right away, the viewer is thrusted into a tent with a woman giving birth asking “is it moving?” and she is reassured by her husband. Something seems to be wrong. The woman motions with her hand and says that “he should be moving down” and then suddenly she says “help me, help”.

24-year-old Audrey Bird and her husband Peter live in the remote areas of the Alaskan wilderness some 150 miles from the nearest city (and hospital). They moved there because they wanted a clean and safe environment to raise their children. The narrator claims that an estimated 11% of homebirths require transfer to a hospital (this figure is probably larger in reality) and that it takes about 2 hours to reach the nearest hospital. She acknowledges that people have concerns about giving birth in the wilderness of Alaska, such as the elements and the unhygienic nature of the great outdoors. Why is she going this you might ask? According to the narrator, Audrey is a trained midwife, but it is not clear if she is a professional nurse-midwife (the real midwives) or a certified midwife professional (the quack midwives). She says that her previous birth experiences has led her to this conclusion. She says that she had a bad experience with her first birth that occurred in a hospital. According to Audrey, she was in labor for “just” 7 hours and the OB wanted to break the water or perform a C-section. She says her first birth was “full of fear” and that she never wanted to experience that again. At this point is unclear if she had a C-section, but she had her second child at home with just her husband there (so not even a quack midwife).

What did they plan?

They plan on giving birth on a nearby beach because of the grand view. Both of them are acutely aware that there are bears around and Peter has already had to shoot two bears who walked into their property. He is concerned that the smell of blood from the birth risks attracting bears to their locations, so he is constantly armed (either with a rifle or a gun). They set up the primary birth location, but since the weather tends to be unstable, they also construct a plan B, which is a birch structure that were previously used for storage. Unfortunately, the beams have been rotting for years. The husband is forced to re-build it.

The next day, Audrey’s mother and sister are flying in for the birth. Problem is that they only runway is across a very large lake and it takes about an hour to reach it. It has now also started to rain. Peter has to leave Audrey alone with the children to go get the mother and sister across the lake and the weather is constantly getting worse (takes about an hour to get to the landing strip). Turns out the relatives are not dressed for the weather but hey at least they brought pizza. Audrey is getting worried since Peter has been gone for hours and she is getting closer and closer to the moment of birth. In an astonishing irony, she thinks giving birth alone would be too dangerous, but does not draw the same conclusion about giving birth in the wild. She seems to think she is invulnerable as long as her husband is there. The husband, mother and sister are on the lake in the motorboat, but conditions worsen. Peter announces that they have too much weight and has to go to shore as they are taking in water. They have to walk the rest of the way home, and with the ever-present threat of bears and slippery rocks. They manage to make it back in time.

The contractions are coming more frequent and consistent and she did not sleep much that night. Peter goes out to check the birth location at the beach the next day and finds that it has been flooded and is now under water. He claims that it was totally unexpected that the water would rise so fast after about 24 hours of rain. Once he get home, they decide to get to their plan B birch structure. She thinks it is not nearly as good as the beach, but much better than the hospital.

What happened?

She then goes on to complain about the many aggressive mosquitoes infesting her surroundings. She enters active labor in their birch tent. There is a short detour on why she screams in pain. Audrey explains that she just does it to coup. The mother, sister and children are still in the house and they hear Audrey screams. The sister is worried about things that could go wrong so she goes to the birch structure. There are several more minutes of her agonizing screams. Audrey starts to realize that something is wrong. The baby is “not moving”. Peter discovers that the baby is “posterior”, which means that the face is turned up. This, according to the narrator, prolongs birth and increases risk. Audrey starts to push really hard because. After a while, the baby is born in the early hours of the morning and the kids go and she their mom in the forest. Afterwards, she considered the experience better than giving birth at the hospital and would consider doing it again.

What were they thinking?

How do Audrey and Peter justify their decision to give birth in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness without trained medical personnel? They offer up a couple of rationalizations, all involve homebirth quacktivist pseudoscience:

Audrey: “I feel more confident giving birth naturally. I feel like my body has the opportunity to work the way it suppose to work without any intervention at all.”

This is a clear case of the appeal to nature fallacy. Just because something is natural, does not mean that it is good. According to the U. N. about 300 000 mothers die in childbirth every year and the vast majority of these occur in the developing world. That is what giving your body the “opportunity to work the way it suppose to work without any intervention at all”.

Audrey: “The medicalization of birth in our country has become distorted from what birth should be and so I wanted actually be outside and experience that primal, primitive sort of experience. I just want to introduce her to this world being part of nature.”

Yet more fetischizing of nature. What is so good about giving birth in a forest with tens of thousands of mosquitoes and essentially no access to medical care until it is too late?

Peter: “150 years ago, birth was just something everyone did at home. But then we started influencing birth, started calling it an emergency, started taking interventions. All these things became fears.”

Rightly so! With the help of hospitals, interventions and spreading the knowledge that giving birth is not remotely a risk-free event, we have stopped many women and children from dying from the birth process.

Audrey: “Birth is safe. You take low-risk women who are planning to have a homebirth or an unassisted birth or birthing in the middle of nowhere and it is going to be safer than a low-risk woman in a hospital because of the interventions. Homebirth is not a trend. Hospital birth is the trend. It has been around a lot shorter time period than homebirth. If birth wasn’t safe, no of us would be here.”

Quite the opposite. Homebirth increases neonatal death rates with at least 3 times, possibly up to close to 5 times depending on the dataset (and this is probably an underestimation). Needless to say, a “birthing in the middle of nowhere” (such as Alaskan wilderness) has never been studied scientifically. The risks with that is most likely much greater, since in almost 40% of cases, a transfer to hospital occurs due to a medical emergency. No such possibility in the middle of nowhere, at least not in time.

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Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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