“The Business of Baby”

Likening new (or soon-to-be) parents to fish in a barrel hardly seems fair.

To the fish.

That’s because, when it comes to a group ripe for the picking by corporations, pharmaceutical companies, and other entities, it’s hard to top nascent moms and dads.

After all, if “experts” continually bombard you with messages that this prenatal procedure is critical, that childbirth intervention is urgent, and those products are vital to your baby’s overall well-being, who are you to suggest otherwise?

You’re the parent, that’s who, says author Jennifer Margulis. And the more you know about the forces driving the pregnancy industry, the better-informed decisions you’ll be able to make for yourself and your child.

(Full disclosure: Jennifer is a friend of mine.)

In her latest book, The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line, Margulis, an advocate of homebirths and extended breastfeeding, takes on the kinds of controversial topics—vaccines, elective C-sections, circumcision, etc.—that alternately get her cheered and condemned.

Say what you will about Margulis’ beliefs, she’s got balls.

She’s also got a firm point of view, which is essentially that childbirth is a normal process, not a medical condition; that most interventions are unnecessary and potentially dangerous; and that babies need very little beyond loving families, breast milk, and fresh air.

Although I agree with many of her sentiments, parts of this book make me squirm, one conceit especially so. Having given birth four times—the first while an unmarried 20-year-old college student 500 miles from home—I’m wary of how quickly laboring women are cast as helpless victims to a bullying childbirth cabal.

Is the mere suggestion (however badgering or brusque) of painkillers or Pitocin really abusive? Is push-back from labor-and-delivery staff—when a woman’s desires conflict with a hospital’s standard protocols—truly assault?

No.

Are women in labor uniquely vulnerable to coercion? Absolutely.

Does that, therefore, turn them all into submissive, voiceless sheep? Hopefully not.

Is modern medicine too quick to see risk where there is none? Clearly.

Does this prove widespread malfeasance in the OB’s office and the delivery room? It doesn’t.

To be honest, though, the sections of Margulis’ book that are most unsettling to me are the ones that directly challenge the decisions I’ve made for my own kids.

When it comes to vaccines, for instance, Margulis (who, despite how she’s been characterized by some, is not “anti” vaccine) posits that the current number of recommended vaccinations—which has snowballed in the past 20 years—and the schedule on which they’re administered should be reexamined. Why is it, she asks, that vaccines are considered “one size fits all”?

And, why, along those same lines, are routine prenatal tests automatically deemed benign when they may be anything but?

To wit: In ultrasounds, not only is the intensity of the sound waves ricocheting off the fetus not regulated, but the procedure itself has become a “get one whenever you want” novelty. In shopping malls across the land, pregnant women can undergo walk-in ultrasounds and leave with shiny 4-D images to take home.

Might these multiple exposures to sound waves impact fetal development?

Possibly; it merits further study.

And that’s what I was left thinking after reading this book. The positions Margulis takes are often provocative—and many fly in the face of my Midwestern, anti-woo-woo mindset—but that doesn’t make them illegitimate.

Do I agree with everything she says? No. (For one thing, she can have my epidural when she pries it out of my cold, dead hands.) But many points in the book are undisputable, including these, laid out right at the beginning:

Fact: The United States has one of the highest infant death rates of the industrialized world.

Fact: It is safer to be born in 48 other countries than in the U.S.

Fact: The maternal mortality rate in the United States is among the highest in the industrialized world.  

And the annoying thing about facts? They’re tough to ignore.

The Business of Baby: What Doctors Don’t Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line, published by Scribner, is available at all major booksellers.

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