It's no surprise the Pacific Northwest, home of progressive anti-vaccine efforts, is also on the vanguard of this latest fad in anthropology. In Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Melissa Cheyney, assistant professor of medical anthropology at Oregon State University, documented rituals used by midwives and conducted interviews with midwives and new mothers.
Conclusion? Cheyney believes that because midwife deliveries have fewer Cesarean sections, the rituals may be the reason - not surprisingly, she is a midwife herself. The hallmark of any great study is throwing out objectivity and being a participant. "This is about invoking the mind-body connection. We know, for instance, that midwives have better health outcomes in some areas, such as reduced rates of surgical delivery and labor induction, than hospitals. But I wanted to examine how ritual might play a part in producing these positive health outcomes."
More likely; only the lowest risk births take a chance on home delivery. Yes, hospitals perform too many c-sections but we can thank get-rich-quick experts like former Sen. John Edwards for making c-sections required at the first sign of trouble, lest the hospital face a lawsuit for not doing a c-section. The infant mortality rate since midwives were the only option is also drastically down so mothers who go that route still have access to advanced medical care. If things are okay, the delivery ritual helped. If they do not, it was just bad luck.
That's not a knock on midwives; many of them are pretty good and midwives do most of the prenatal checks a doctor or nurse would; this is a knock on an anthropologist claiming magical 'woman-centered rituals' are safely delivering babies that would otherwise not be delivered safely in a hospital and require surgery. Do these rituals work, provided we don't read too much into them? Sure. Cheyney noted that mantras like "don't fight it", "let your body do it", "open" and "let it be strong" were reported to make women feel more involved than they had been during hospital births, where supposedly they just laid there. But 50 anecdotes are not evidence.
Cheyney makes no secret of her advocacy; she states up front that she wants to endorse midwifery - something sure to make obstetricians happy. "Just as women and their doctors who deliver in the hospital often feel convinced that their birth was the only safe and 'correct' way, women and midwives who deliver at home feel strongly that they have the solution," Cheyney said. "They believe it with every cell in their body because they have lived it."
Is that science? After the Fukushima nuclear plant incident, people in the Pacific Northwest also claimed radiation from Japan was immediately killing babies in America and their anti-vaccine beliefs are startling. Stephanie Messenger suffered through the death of a child; the child was vaccinated and therefore the vaccines caused the death, she believes. So now we have Melanie's Marvellous Measles, a book for kids about "about the ineffectiveness of vaccinations, while teaching them to embrace childhood disease, heal if they get a disease, and build their immune systems naturally." She's from Australia but would fit right into Seattle. She could just have easily blamed rice milk.
To an anti-vaccine anthropologist, finding 50 more people who had a vaccinated child die is also a study because they just have to have 'lived' it. This article seems to be more advocacy piece than medicine, despite the name of the journal. She calls standard medical practices used in hospitals 'rituals' as well, a way to create false equivalence for these female empowerment rituals and endorse symbolism in place of science - "intentionally manipulated rituals of technocratic subversion", as she describes it.
For low-risk deliveries, a midwife obviously works fine. Seeking to increase the number of non-hospital deliveries as part of a cultural agenda against "fictions of medicalized birthing care" is dangerous.
Citation: Melissa Cheyney, 'Reinscribing the Birthing Body: Homebirth as Ritual Performance', Medical Anthropology Quarterly Volume 25, Issue 4, pages 519–542, December 2011 DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1387.2011.01183.x