This book review appears in the Winter 2014 issue of the Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health, JOPPAH, a publication of the Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health. Posted here with permission.
The cover of Childbirth and the Future of Homo Sapiens is an enlarged, pixelated image of the human hand, held up as if to say, “Stop!” I instantly found this an intriguing choice for the cover of the book. Was the author warning us to beware before embarking upon this reading journey? Indeed, there were several moments while engaged in this odyssey of contemplation on the future of the human species, that I had to stop and pause with shock at the author’s turn of phrase. One chapter is entitled, “Should we criminalize planned vaginal birth?” My doula heart shuddered for a moment – is Michel Odent, long-time proponent of home-like birthing rooms and steadfast advocate of honoring the precious time just after birth between a mother and newborn, really asking this question?
Like any good researcher, one must ask the difficult questions and then follow the data to their truthful conclusions. And data he has, as he points out in his book. Catalogued and searchable through keywords like “birth weight,” “breastmilk,” and “bulimia” are thousands of scholarly articles and international research papers on the “primal period” that he has collected over many years in his database, www.primalhealthresearch.com. It is from this hefty foundation of data that Odent has built the premise of his book.
Odent outlines the first objective of his book: “Should we expect transformations of our species in relation to the way babies are born?” (p.13). Regardless of the answer (which is a resounding yes, by the way), I was struck more by how critical this question is – and how essentially no one else – is asking it. As Odent points out, if you go to a talk about birth, you will find pregnant moms, midwives, doulas, and those whose profession is to support the primal period. But you won’t find much more diversity than that. Most people outside of those groups are not even curious as to what is happening currently in the childbirth world and even fewer ever wonder about what effect the way we are born may have on the evolution of our species. Even more fascinating and disturbing, those who are curious about where we are headed as a species rarely, if ever, grant the primal period any importance. Odent insists, “All those interested in the future of Homo sapiens should be interested in the way babies are born” (p. 55).
From his meta-viewpoint on the research, Odent makes a compelling argument on how birth practices are affecting the evolution of our human species. The advent of understanding epigenetics (gene expression being affected by the environment), has allowed us to consider the “fast and spectacular transformation of species” (p. 17). In other words, we can sometimes see the indelible effects of widespread cultural practices – such as those surrounding birth – on the human species as a whole within a generation or two. Odent underscores that the research shows, time and again, that interference during labor and birth has psychological, emotional, and physiological impacts on the babies born and thus – by statistically significant extension – the human species as a whole. Decreased emotional intelligence, lowered immunity, greater likelihood of depression, increased risk of autism – these are just some of the consequences that humanity faces when we interfere with the birth process.
Odent boldly claims that the perinatal period is “the most highly disturbed phase of human life” (p. 115) and disturbing this precious period supported the survival of the species at a time when “it was an advantage to develop the human potential for aggression and the capacity to destroy life” (p. 57). Thus, interfering with the labor process – especially the third stage right after birth of the baby – was advantageous when warriors and hunters were what the species needed for survival. But is that what will confer a survival advantage now? Or are we more in need of innovation infused with cooperation, understanding, and love?
If we want to steer humanity towards a more balanced relationship with the environment and with each other, then Odent makes the cogent case that we must support the flow of oxytocin – the “love hormone” – during labor and birth. This means understanding the physiological needs of a laboring woman and differentiating this from the entrenched cultural practices that surround birth. Odent emphasizes that the physiological evidence is clear in demonstrating what is essential in order for labor to flow with ease. Silence. Darkness. Privacy. Protection. Protect birth and you protect the species from the cataclysmic path of aggression with each other and destruction of the environment that we seem to be on. Protect birth as it was intended to be physiologically, and you direct the species toward love.
I imagine Odent sitting at my kitchen table where the wine is flowing and the busy chatter of small talk is bubbling amongst the invited guests: a teacher, an architect, a scientist, a politician, a doctor, a professor, a computer engineer, and a farmer. Over the buzz of chatter, Odent loudly but gently says, “Pause for a moment, my friends. Where do we want to go, as a species? Toward love or toward aggression?” The stunned silence that follows is broken only by Odent’s next sentence, “Choose the direction first. And then guard the birth practices that support it.”
What a gift Odent has offered us at such a critical juncture in our species’ evolution. This book is our opportunity to pause, reflect, and then implement changes in how are babies are being born. I deeply agree with Michel Odent’s caveat on the back of his book in which he emphasizes that this book is “for everyone except pregnant women…whose time is precious. They should be watching the moon, singing to their unborn babies in the womb and nurturing the life within them.”