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

Born in the Wild

“Born in the Wild” (2015) was a television series that ran for a single season on the television network Lifetime. They followed a few different mothers who wanted to give birth outside in environments that ranged from a tent in the snow to the wilderness of Alaska. They often did this without properly trained medical personnel and hours away from the nearest hospital.

In essence, the show is a celebration of natural birth quackery. They give ample time for them to spew their pseudoscientific and anti-medical nonsense, while leaving very little time for real medicine and the risks of extreme homebirth. The show combines extreme narcissism of mothers who think it is safer to give birth in the wilderness than at a hospital with alternative medicine quackery that demonizes doctors and hospitals.

The intro theme for the episode joins together pictures of nature and women in pain, with a narrator explaining that “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.”

So far, episodes covered by Debunking Denialism has involved giving birth in the Alaskan wilderness, the mountain plains of Utah, a blueberry farm in Georgia and in the snow in North Dakota.

Giving birth in a makeshift greenhouse

This episode is about Rebecca (34) and her husband David (36). They live in rural Reeves in Tennessee. It is a tiny community with just over 300 members. They already have five young children and all but one were born at home. They have an Amish background, although they have both left their Amish communities a while back. Rebecca’s mother had 7 children and she never knew of any other kind of birth than homebirth. She has always enjoyed homebirth and her current plan is to have her sixth child out in nature. She says it is like a dream come true. She thinks that it will be cool to give birth outdoors and she is very excited about it. During the winter, the temperature drops to -16 °C (3 °F) during the night.

Is her biggest concern the cold? The safety of homebirth? The time it will take to get her to a doctor? No. Instead, her biggest concern is not having her birthing location set up in time. Rebecca is not at all concerned about safety because she is an apprentice midwife and claims to be making a fully informed decision. She had a bad experience at a hospital because she had to give birth on her back, “fight off nurses” and felt that the entire experience was awful. She especially disliked the fact that her newborn baby was taken to a nursery. This is done to allow the mother to rest. Rebecca insists that hospitals is not about giving the best experience for the mother but to be convenient for the doctors. In reality, hospitals are for making sure people do not get harmed or die. It is not to give patients in a hospital the best emotional experience.

What happened?

When the show starts, they are out driving on the countryside in an effort to find a good location for the greenhouse Rebecca wants to give birth in. It is not easy, and the midwife takes 4 hours to get there after they moved. David, the husband, insists that there would be no way that they would be doing all of this if they were not convicted that it was completely safe. They continue to drive around looking for a place with lots of trees in a secluded and quiet area with lots of privacy. They find a place with tall grass in the middle of nowhere. They realize that they have a lot to prepare, including cutting the grass. Rebecca explains that she dreams a lot of having her baby outside. In other words, this is mostly something she does for her own sake. They decide that building will start during the next morning.

However, the baby gets in the way of their decisions. Contractions start during the night and Rebecca calls her midwife. She has a history of going in to labor fast, but the birth site is not set up and it will take hours for the midwife to get there. The narrator explains that a study by the Indiana State Board of Health found that maternal mortality during unassisted birth was 97 times higher than the state average. After hours, the midwife arrives. They are a bit confused by the low heart rate of the baby, but it was due to her laying on her back. It turns out that this was just false labor, and the midwife departs.

They decide to change the birth location closer to the house. Rebecca wants to give birth in a greenhouse decorated with plants that look and smell nice. They visit a shop for plants and buy many plants they like, but then the contractions are back and they race home. The husband is a professional carpenter and have built greenhouses from scratch before. However, due to time restraints, he has decided to buy a greenhouse kit that can be assembled easily. He starts to put it together with some of the children. The contractions increase and Rebecca calls the midwife again. She repeats that she always wanted to give birth outside and that this is a dream come true. She focuses a lot on what she wants to do.

She now enters active labor. She goes out to the greenhouse, but complains that it is too cold. The husband says that it will soon be warmer as he will turn on the heater and fill the pool with warm water. At first, clear water comes out from the hose, but it soon turns brown. It turns out that there is rust in the water heater. Suddenly, her water breaks. It is -4 °C (25 °F) outside. The midwife arrives, but is not too keen on the situation and says that it is too cold. The husband notices that the water is too cold and starts boiling some water and pours it in.

Everything is now ready and Rebecca moves out to the greenhouse. The children also joins in. She looks tired and is in a kind of pain that, according to the husband, feels more than just labor pain. The other children look scared, sad and worried. It does not take long for the birth to starts. The baby’s head comes out and soon the rest of the body, as this part of the labor is quite fast. They name the baby girl Veronica, who was born around 5 am.

What were they thinking?

Rebecca feels that this was entirely safe. The dad says that this was a much better atmosphere than at a hospital. Rebecca insists that giving birth is just a natural function of the body. She explains that giving birth is not a sickness or a disease, so you should not need a doctor. She claims that the risks are smaller at home because giving birth at the hospital involves more interventions which she believes pose a much bigger risk.

Rebecca is, of course, wrong on the facts. The reason you give birth at a hospital is not because pregnancy or birth is somehow a sickness or disease. It is because birth is inherently dangerous. According to the World Health Organization, 300 000 mothers die every year during or close after pregnancy or birth. Most of these happen in resource-poor communities. Communities that have no choice but to “give birth naturally”. This is the kind of situation that Rebecca wants to mimic. In reality, she has had her view distorted by her privileged life to see these dangers.

Like most mothers in the “Born in the Wild” television series, she makes this all about herself. It is her dream to give birth outside in nature. It is something she has dreamt of for a long time. She spends very little time thinking about safety. The times she does discuss safety, she is outright dismissive of modern medicine and praises homebirth. The narrator does provide some basic facts and studies that show that some claims are not entirely true, but it is a classic example of false balance. It is actually worse, since they do not mention the reason that hospital interventions are not riskier than giving birth outdoors and that it is more often that high-risk pregnancies are delivered at a hospital than at home, so it will skew any such naive comparison.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

One thought on “A Scientific Skeptic Watches “Born in the Wild” (Tennessee Episode)

  • May 23, 2018 at 23:03
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    I know of two cases where babies ended up permanently brain damaged as the result of complications during a home birth, which would have been avoided by an emergency Caesarean had the best taken place in hospital.

    Reply

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