‘Born in the Wild’? The Problems With Lifetime’s New Reality Show


Lifetime Television, once known for its melodramatic movies of the week, has been bringing us reality shows for many years—from Dance Moms, to Preachers’ Daughters, to True Tori, the network has given us the opportunity to watch both regular people and the rich and famous in their natural habitats.

Now the cable channel is taking on childbirth, and it too will be done in a natural habitat.

The new show, Born in the Wild, will follow couples who eschew hospitals and doctors for babbling brooks and fields of wildflowers. As the press release announcing the show teased: “What happens when the craziest experience of a woman’s life becomes truly wild, and soon-to-be parents decide to take on an unassisted birth in the outdoors?”

Women should be free to choose their childbirth experience. If you want to give birth at home or in the backyard or in the woods, you should be free to do so. If you want a camera crew to watch as you give birth, go ahead. But this show strikes me as a step too far. It is capitalizing on the misperception that modern medicine ruined childbirth, and that childbirth was better in the “old days” when women trusted their bodies and did it the way nature intended. Moreover, the show’s premise is disingenuous at best; trading modern medical equipment for a camera crew and a satellite van does not take us back to nature.

Modern Medicine Did Not Ruin Childbirth

The complaint about childbirth having become too medicalized is a common refrain among a certain group of new parents today. The argument suggests that women have been having babies for most of human history without pain medication, fetal monitors, and emergency C-sections, and that we should go back to the day when childbirth was run by the woman herself and not an army of doctors and nurses and specialists.

Yes, women have been having babies without intervention for centuries, but a hell of a lot of them died while doing it.

As part of her 2013 series on longevity for Slate, Laura Helmuth took on death in childbirth. She notes that in the United States today, about 15 women die in pregnancy or childbirth for every 100,000 live births. That’s quite high—in fact, for a developed country, we should be ashamed of our maternal mortality rate—but nowhere near as high as it has been in the past. In the 1600s and 1700s, between 1 and 1.5 percent of births ended in maternal deaths, which meant that women (who had a lot more children at the time) had about a 4 percent lifetime chance of dying in childbirth. Even in the early 1900s, childbirth was a dangerous proposition, with nearly 600 women dying for every 100,000 live births in the United States.

Interestingly, Helmuth explains that 100 years ago the medicalization of childbirth may have in fact make it more dangerous in some ways. As physicians tried to lure patients away from homebirths and midwives, they often offered unnecessary medical procedures designed to prove that women needed to be in a hospital setting. Moreover, they failed to take some easy steps—such as washing their hands between patients—that could have saved many lives.

But a lot has changed in medicine in the past century. The advent of antibiotics has meant that the most common killer of new mothers—post-birth infections—is no longer a big threat. And prenatal care is now able to detect many potentially life-threatening complications before they occur. What Downton Abbey viewer can forget when Lady Sybil died while delivering her baby? Eclampsia—the condition that likely killed that character—is now screened for throughout a woman’s pregnancy, through the use of frequent urine tests and blood pressure monitoring.

The primary complaint about births in hospitals today is that too many women undergo unnecessary cesarean sections, which are major surgeries and carry more risks than vaginal delivery. This is in many ways a legitimate concern, as C-section rates rose dramatically between 1996 and 2009. In the past few years, however, major medical organizations have put out guidelines aimed at reducing C-sections that are not medically necessary, and the rates have stabilized. Although I agree that many obstetricians may still be too quick to order a C-section for reasons that may not be medically necessary, I do think we have to remember that in many instances this surgery can save both mother and child, and that women today are lucky it’s available.

My fear with the new Lifetime show is that it will tout the mantra of the over-medicalization of childbirth without ever challenging its legitimacy. Furthermore, as I mentioned in an article I wrote for RH Reality Check a few years ago, there is a lot of judgment swirling around women’s childbirth choices. Many proponents of natural childbirth (often used to mean a birth without any pain medication) seem to suggest that it is the only “real” or “legitimate” birthing experience, and some in the home birth movement have suggested that getting out of a hospital setting is the best option for those who want a meaningful childbirth experience. Given that the women who will be featured on Born in the Wild have all had at least one hospital experience in the past (it’s one of the requirements to be on the show) and are choosing something radically different, I worry that the show will perpetuate the idea that “real” women give birth without modern medicine.

The Wild or “The Wild”?

Even worse about the message that “real” women have their babies in a field without any help is that when it comes to this reality show, that is not what is happening. The women featured on the show will be surrounded by a production team, there will be an emergency medical professional on set, and though the couple can choose the location, the producers will only agree to it so long as they are within a certain radius of a hospital in case complications arise. You can’t tell me that that’s really the wild, or that it’s these births are truly unassisted.

There are women around the world who have no choice but to give birth without any medical care because they have no access to care or they can’t afford it. Their risk of complications and death is certainly higher than for women who have access to care. Women in areas like South Sudan, which has been in conflict for years, have no access to medical institutions. The last available maternal death rate in that country (from 2006) showed that 2,045 women died per every 100,000 live births. In Chad, where two-thirds of the population lives in poverty, more than 1,000 women die for every 100,000 live births. The rates throughout many regions in Africa hover near 500.

Here in the United States, the maternal death rate is also closely linked to poverty, race, and access. A report by the Department of Health and Human Services looked at maternal death from 1935 through 2007. It notes:

Compared to women in the low poverty group, women in the middle poverty and high poverty groups had 90 percent and 220 percent higher maternal mortality risks in 1969-1971 and 58 percent and 102 percent higher maternal mortality risks in 2003-2007, respectively.

The report also notes that the risk of maternal death over the last six decades has been four times higher for Black women than for non-Hispanic white women. Within racial groups, too, poverty continues to play a role. The report found that Black women in the high-poverty group had a 35 percent higher maternal death rate than Black women in the low-poverty group. Similarly, non-Hispanic white women in the high-poverty group had a 50 percent higher maternal death rate than non-Hispanic white women in the low-poverty group. Much of the disparity here is based on access to high-quality health care.

Born in the Wild has not yet aired, and I cannot claim to know the socioeconomic background of the couples who will be featured. We do know, however, that they will need to have had one hospital-based birth in the past, so it seems likely that their decision to forego medical intervention during delivery is a philosophical one rather than a financial one. I must admit it’s hard for me to get behind such a choice when so many women in the world die because they don’t have access to what these women could have had.

The likelihood, however, is that all of the births on this show will go smoothly and end in healthy infants. The show is taking precautions to choose only mothers at low risk for complications, and there is back-up medical care if need be. In addition, though these women are choosing to go it alone during delivery, unlike low-income women in this country and around the world, these women will likely have had prenatal care, which can predict and prevent many complications. And research has shown that for low-risk mothers who have access to emergency medical care should problems arise, home births can be as safe as hospital births.

So, as my grandmother would say, “Gai gezunterhait.” Go in good health. Do what you will.

I can only hope that when the show airs, the choice these women have made is not presented as morally superior, healthier, or more “real” than those of women who—like me—felt far more comfortable surrounded by fetal monitors, obstetrics nurses, and specialists than we would have surrounded by trees.

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  • purrtriarchy

    Good article. The commenters here spend a lot of time telling the uninformed that pregnancy is not all rainbows and unicorns. That it can, and has, killed many women throughout history.

    Medicalization is great, as you pointed out. The problems arise when doctors try to force procedures on women…
    http://www.alternet.org/comments/civil-liberties/who-owns-your-womb-women-can-get-murder-charge-refusing-c-sections#comment-1438724276

  • Shan

    “The show is taking precautions to choose only mothers at low risk for
    complications, and there is back-up medical care if need be.”

    I think the women in the show who have chosen to give birth this way have are smart enough to have already self-selected for this.

    Also, unrelated, it’s telling that we can have a show like this about women giving birth unassisted (and/or HOW many miles from the nearest hospital?) and yet there is no pending legislation regarding the conditions surrounding their safety, or the safety of their infants, under such conditions. And yet had these same women chosen to terminate their pregnancies instead, some could hardly find a place to legally do it within hundreds of miles due to the fact that so many clinics have been shut down because they’re “not safe” i.e., ambulatory surgical centers.

    • diaztello

      Good point about self selection. The comparison between restrictions on birthing and abortion is a bit inapt, though. For two reasons:

      1) I can guarantee that restrictions on where people give birth are in the pike, from the same people who believe that abortion should be restricted. Take, for example, the AZ lawmaker who said of a law that would restrict home births: “I’m a pro-life legislator. I see the mom and the baby as two separate entities… I would love to preserve the choice of the mother for their home
      birth, but that child also needs to have a choice … the choice not to
      die.” At one point during Wendy Davis’s filibuster, she mentioned the differential in safety between abortion and birth, and one of the proponents of SB2 basically said he’d be happy to talk about how to make birth safer through restrictions. Thanks, but no thanks…

      2) There are, in practice, significant restrictions on birthing. It remains to be seen who is on this show, but there are growing numbers of women who have unassisted births because the have no access to VBAC or legally practicing midwives. This is a public health issue, and a human rights concern. Ironically, I talk to lots of women who feel that they would have an easier time getting an abortion than a respectful birth.

      tl;dr, there’s plenty of shame, stigma, and attempts at restricting rights of pregnant people whatever the outcome of their pregnancies.

      • Shan

        “I can guarantee that restrictions on where people give birth are in the
        pike, from the same people who believe that abortion should be
        restricted.”

        I totally agree. Some of it are already doing it. And not because they’re trying to keep women safer.

  • Laurie Bertram Roberts

    “The report also notes that the risk of maternal death over the last six decades has been four times higher for Black women than for non-Hispanic white women. Within racial groups, too, poverty continues to play a role. The report found that Black women in the high-poverty group had a 35 percent higher maternal death rate than Black women in the low-poverty group. Similarly, non-Hispanic white women in the high-poverty group had a 50 percent higher maternal death rate than non-Hispanic white women in the low-poverty group. Much of the disparity here is based on access to high-quality health care.”
    Dear author you aren’t telling the whole story about access to high quality care and WOC often. WOC are even more likely to end up with a schedule ELECTIVE C-Section suggested by their Dr prior to 38 weeks as well as being induced for no medically needed reason. Leaving our babies more likely to end up with stays in the NICU due to complications of being premature.
    I am for women having choice in their birthing. W/O stigma your article hardly does that. It makes it seem as if concerns regarding c-section rates are overblown when in Mississippi most hospitals have section rates above 35% (WHO recommends a rate no higher than 15%). Where I live only 2 hospitals in a 6 county area will ALLOW women to attempt a VBAC. Leaving women to attempt unassisted births if they can’t book with one of states 6 homebirth midwives (yes only 6).

    • fiona64

      I’m a doula.

      Which means you are not a doctor. If I’m going to make a medical decision, I tend to make it with a doctor.

      Other people, of course, are free to do otherwise.

      • Laurie Bertram Roberts

        Did I claim to be a doctor? NO! I am saying I do birth work. I am also training as a midwife. How many births have you attended? How much training do you have around pregnancy and birth? Don’t belittle my profession to make your point whatever that may be since you didn’t state one.

        • fiona64

          You were the one making a big point of being a doula (were you perhaps advertising and hoping to obtain clients?). You cited this as though it gives you some sort of insight into correct medical procedures.

          For those who don’t know what doulas are, this is a good overview: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doula

          You’re a glorified labor coach, nothing more.

          Like I said, when I have medical concerns or need to make a medical decision, I make it with a physician.

          • Laurie Bertram Roberts

            I wasn’t giving you or anyone else medical advice. Nor did I make “a big point of being a doula” I wrote it in one sentence “I am for women having choice in their birthing I’m a doula.” All that sentence says is I am even more strongly for birth choices due to the work I do.
            I cited medical information. studies, and I referenced the fact that I do birth work. FYI I am far more than a birth coach. I work with women before and after labor giving support and education. I help women through pregnancy loss and abortions. I happen to work mostly with low income and teen mothers for free. So no I’m not advertising.
            You seem to take great issue with my viewpoint yet the author is not a physician is she? The way she is laying out information is no different from the way I did. So I’m not sure why you are so hostile.
            The author is conflating two points that have nothing to do with each other 1) reality T.V. and the risks of it and the false perceptions it can generate 2) the reality of homebirths and unassisted births for every day women.
            She made some huge assumptions and leaps in this piece that deserve to be challenged.

      • diaztello

        Laurie didn’t claim to be a doctor — she said that she supports women having choice in birthing. In fact, one of the central tenets of being a doula is that they *are not* medical providers, and they do not make medical decisions or recommendations for their clients; they support them in standing by the choices they make (usually, like you, with their doctor). To the chagrin of many doulas, I’m sure, there’s not even really anything they can do when they see the clients they serve being coerced or even forced into procedures that may not be necessary.

        As people who attend births in support of birthing people, doulas bear witness to a lot of what is going wrong in our maternity care system, particularly with respect to the way pregnant and birthing people are treated, or the way medical information is presented to them. The fact that the system is failing many women is not a secret or even a controversy. One doesn’t need to be a physician to know the cesarean rates in one’s own state, be aware of restrictions women face in birthing, or to question the use of non-medically indicated induction or the excessive cesarean rate (although physicians and their professional organizations certainly have and do — you should check out the new recommendations by ACOG and SMFM on reducing the primary cesarean rate, and the 39+ weeks campaigns by March of Dimes and others).

        You refer to doulas as “glorified labor coaches,” and I’m not sure why other than to try to offend. Do you not think people deserve support during childbirth (or miscarriages/stillbirths, or abortions)? This non-medical, supportive role is very important, and has been supported by evidence-based research as a factor in good birth outcomes. This is especially critical for marginalized women who are susceptible to poor outcomes.

  • Tamara

    “It is capitalizing on the misperception that modern medicine ruined childbirth, and that childbirth was better in the “old days” when women trusted their bodies and did it the way nature intended.”

    Yes! Women in the “old days” didn’t trust their bodies…they had no choice!! And would probably be scared as hell.

  • lady_black

    Yeahhhh… No thanks.

  • redlemon

    One thing I hate about this whole natural birth/medical birth thing is that it’s almost always taken to extremes. Like, if you go to a hospital and have a hospital birth, they will just give you a c section for no reason. Or force pain medication on you. Or if you home birth, the baby will always die.

    There are legitimate medical things we need to be looking at. We need to examine our c section rates. We should examine if women are being pressured into things or given full information. We should be looking if there is a way to make homebirthing safer, through fully trained midwives and regulations. We should be looking at giving the most choices with the most amount of safety. That would all be nice. Instead, mothers argue over what is superior and what makes a “real” birth experience and a “real” mother. And no doubt that this show will continue that.

  • Beatrix S.L

    I can’t wait for the episode featuring the first childbirth attracting a pack of hungry wolves, just as nature intended.

  • aspekx

    only two thoughts as an outsider on this issue:

    1. whatever happened to balanced reasoned approaches to issues? why is everything being reduced to either/or binary decision making? in other words, why not *both*.

    2. in order to facilitate women in not having to choose one or the other, hospitals and clinics should, within reason, discuss with the mother what procedures, medicines and painkillers that she wants.

    NB: by ‘within reason’ i mean that healthcare facilities can face heavy fines for not taking certain precautions when handling patients. and then there is the everpresent fear of a lawsuit.

  • Guest
  • aspekx

    on a sidenote the Obstetrics community is aware of at least one of the overused procedures and there is pushback from them concerning it:

    https://www.acog.org/Resources_And_Publications/Obstetric_Care_Consensus_Series/Safe_Prevention_of_the_Primary_Cesarean_Delivery

  • dagobarbz

    Like the anti-vaxx people, people like this just clear out the gene pool a little bit. Embrace the woo, and don’t reproduce.

  • RockyMissouri

    Well said…!!