I don't mean to be a buzz-kill, truly I don't. It's just that I made this pact with myself, on behalf of the wellbeing of mothers and babies: I decided a few years back to run this not-so-celebratory article every year on America's birthday, as long as our country continues to show up so poorly in world rankings on maternal health. I'll get to that in a moment, but first some breaking news. (Settle in, grab a cuppa, this is long... or should I say in more inviting terms, epic. This really is historic, and it deserves all the words it takes.)
California this week passed SB 277 and Governor Brown signed it into law, eliminating vaccine exemptions for philosophical, religious or medical beliefs. Under this law, parents are required to fully vaccinate their children for them to be eligible for school admittance (both public and private). The one exception is having a doctor's note. (This strikes me as a loophole that may end up blowing back on progressive doctors; I'm envisioning waiting rooms overflowing with parents clamoring for the coveted Doctor's Note.)
My confession: I've laid low on the whole past year of escalating debate on the vaccine issue. I've had the sense that it would have been like arriving a few years late to college: a lot to catch up on. As I've watched the vaccination schedule get longer over the years I've felt thankful I had children born in 1987 and 1991.
When our youngest had a (mild, yet distinct) reaction following her first DTP (diphtheria / tetanus / pertussis) shot, we chose -- in consultation with our pediatrician -- to give her only DT and not P in subsequent rounds. I keep thinking about that: If SB-277 had been in effect, would I not have had the choice to send Eve to Lupin Hill Elementary School because she didn't complete her full schedule of pertussis vaccinations??
I can't preach to you that the only way to stay independent is to stay informed, and then not be informed myself, so I've been doing some homework. Not gonna lie: this requires a strong stomach. Why? Because it's like falling down Alice's rabbit hole after first getting a toilet swirly, gorging on a nauseating fistful of something deep-fried and then having a spin on the most vicious Six Flags coaster. You might want to keep a sedative handy.
I read a few articles on the subject, and also found a compelling letter to California state legislators, from Lawyers Opposed to California SB 277. (It's 2 1/2 pages of letter and 11 1/2 pages of signatures.)
I didn't want to rely on written interpretations, so I watched some YouTube footage to see actual words coming out of actual mouths -- first, testimony given before the California State Assembly in Sacramento before final voting on SB 277. I wasn't surprised to see that our aforementioned pediatrician, Jay Gordon, was there as a reasoned voice. A couple points from Jay's 6-minute speech jumped out at me:
- The California Department of Public Health reported that 90% of children who caught whooping cough last year had received pertussis vaccines
- "A 'No" vote means you support your constituents' rights to make informed medical decisions with their own doctors without coercion and without the threat of losing the right to free and equal educational access for their children. 'No Shots / No School' will mean no school for many children. It's a bad bill, it will create many problems and it will solve none."
Fatheree's testimony quickly homed in on the practical effects of this law on their family and untold thousands of others: they will be forced to home-school their 9-year-old daughter (who remains unvaccinated due to their concerns about a possible family genetic predisposition to severe adverse reactions like Clayton's).
- "She'll be okay with that, but what I'm here to testify about are the tens of thousands of students in the state, our most vulnerable students, who will effectively receive no education if this bill passes."
- "This law is in direct conflict with federal education law; the testimony you're hearing today is that SB 277, while well-intentioned, is unnecessary. It's misguided in that it's not specifically targeting the pockets where problems have been identified, and it comes at a tremendous cost to the rights of students to receive education."
It is an eye-opening primer: how the vaccine schedule grew, outside of any accountability for damages; how vaccines went from "a stepchild of Big Pharma" to "one of its profit centers"; four "scathing" federal studies by the U.S. Congress painting the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) as "an absolute cesspool of corruption"; the 271 new vaccines currently in the pipeline, likely to be added to the schedule; the secrecy surrounding "vaccine court," which has quietly paid out over $3 billion to vaccine-injured families; and the vaccine lobby and federal budgeting that dwarf even those for the military-industrial complex.
Kennedy names names throughout, and perhaps most compelling is Dr. William Thompson, a 17-year veteran senior CDC scientist and lead author of many of the past decade's (misleading) epidemiological studies refuting vaccine risk. Thompson has now invoked whistleblower status (I didn't know there is such a thing, did you?) and is seeking to testify before Congress as well as to the press. Kennedy says Thompson has said publicly that CDC scientists in the vaccine division "have been required by their bosses for at least a decade to lie, manipulate and massage data, to bury data that connect neurological disorders, including autism, to thimerisol exposure and to vaccines."
Are you reaching for the tequila yet?? I swear, there is an upside to this, sort of. Read on.
America: Where More Mothers Die?
It is sad enough that the U.S. sits so poorly in world infant mortality rankings -- babies are statistically more likely to survive in Serbia, Guam, and French Polynesia -- but how is it possible that a woman is more likely to die in or after childbirth in the U.S. than in any other developed country? Or, that in parts of our country the maternal death rate rivals that of sub-Saharan Africa??
This year the sad litany is particularly poignant, since 2015 was the target year for reaching the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals, set in 1990. (Of the eight goals, the push for reduced maternal deaths has made the least progress.) And (are you sitting down?), over the 2+ decades since those goals were set, the United States is the only country in the entire world whose maternal death rates have increased!
This in the country that spends the most on obstetrics and childbirth. This is a conundrum, a puzzle that has lots of brilliant people baffled. But perhaps a clue can be found in a key fact: the countries that saw the biggest improvement in maternal health were ones that increased their use of birth facilities served by midwives -- a trend detailed in a special report by the prestigious medical journal Lancet. I'm going to let HuffPo do the heavy lifting; check out this brief, excellent overview, complete with a cool infographic.
Okay, now that I've totally bummed you out and you are reaching for a margarita with a little flag in it, let's talk about what individual Americans may be able to do to improve the situation. (And even if it doesn't improve the national situation, it cannot help but to improve your own birthing and parenting wellbeing!)
Birthing Moms & Dads, Who Is The Boss of You?
Since this holiday is all about independence from oppressive rule, I want to point out a kind of oppression we experience all the time: the force of culture on birth choices. The fact is, the status-quo of today's culture -- media, medicine, education -- exerts tremendous pressure on well-meaning parents to make choices that aren't always good for babies or for us. (The foregoing vaccine story just one sad example.) This is where some knowledge can be empowering.
The more we know about where our decision-making "blind spots" are, the more we can free ourselves from the prevailing fear-based group-think, and become capable of making positive choices that are in the true best interests of ourselves and our children. And who knows -- maybe as a society we'll become more receptive to the birthing center / midwifery model that has improved maternal health around the globe!
Are We Truly Free to Choose?
Let's begin where it begins -- how we ourselves are born, how we birth our children, and how we perceive the choices involved. Robbie Davis-Floyd, a cultural anthropologist specializing in birth, discovered something both subtle and powerful at work in our attitudes about the safety of non-medicalized births.
"I long ago gave up talking to women about giving birth at home," writes Robbie. "The idea that only hospitals and their technology can make birth safe so permeates this culture that there is simply no point in trying to convince anyone otherwise, even though it is completely untrue and there is plenty of scientific evidence out there to prove it."
One piece of evidence to which Robbie refers is this classic -- which wields new relevance in light of the maternal health gains under midwifery care: Back in 1974 two certified nurse-midwives were put in charge of all normal births in a small county hospital in California for three years in an experimental pilot program. During that time, the rates of obstetrical intervention (like C-sections) fell dramatically, the incidence of prematurity dropped by almost half, and the rate of neonatal deaths dropped from 23.9 per thousand to 10.3 per thousand -- less than half of what it had been before the midwives arrived. At the end of the three years (some say due to fear of competition) the local obstetricians fired the midwives and resumed charge of all births in this hospital. Within a few months, the rates returned to their former high levels.
Birth Choice, or Cultural Rite of Passage?
In light of much research showing that routine interventions & procedures -- such as Pitocin augmentation, electronic fetal monitors, IVs in place of drinking and eating, episiotomies and epidurals -- don't lead to better outcomes and are indeed counterproductive in most normal births, Robbie wondered why otherwise intelligent, savvy women continue to embrace technologically managed birth.
She came to recognize that there had to be something other than rational logic at work in the vast majority of Americans who trust and believe in the relatively higher degree of safety provided by a hospital birth, despite all contrary evidence. Her discoveries led to the landmark book Birth As An American Rite of Passage.
One characteristic of rite of passage rituals is that participants are in an altered state of mind, whether through music, drumming, dance, chanting, breath work, meditation, or mind-altering substances. In the case of labor and birth, the potent biochemicals flowing through mother and baby - and even father - are extremely mind-altering! Any of these kinds of altered states makes participants highly receptive to symbols, which are prominently featured during ritual and which are imprinted on the image-oriented right brain.
Robbie: "Obstetric procedures are far more than medical routines: they are the rituals which initiate American mothers, fathers and babies into the core value system of the technocracy" (the term for a society driven by an ideology of technological progress. In a technocracy, we constantly seek to "improve upon" nature by altering and controlling it through technology).
The list of powerful symbols inherent in any garden-variety hospital birth is fascinating (which you can read about here since this post is already hecka long). Yes, most of us have been baptized in technology. So let us embrace the blessings of that 21st century brilliance, which was originally meant to bring freedom! Nothing has the power to control our moves once we can clearly name the players and the game.
Robert Kennedy Jr. has done that quite clearly regarding our vaccination nation. What he said in concluding his speech on Capitol Hill in Sacramento applies to birth as well: "All of the barriers that are meant to protect our children -- the government, the lawyers, the regulatory agency and the press -- the checks and balances in our democratic system that are supposed to stand between corporate power and our little children have been removed, and there's only one barrier left, and that's the parents. And we need to keep them in the equation."
That is the upside of all this: any illusion that someone "in power" has your child's and your best interests at heart has been ripped away -- finally, painfully, totally. YOU are the ones you've been waiting for. George Fatheree and his wife paid a terrible price for second-guessing their own instincts.
This weekend is all about independence… about freedom from tyranny… and about revolution against oppression. My book may have innocent little cookies on its cover, but it actually calls for a revolution -- an awakening to your own power that comes from within, not from without.
** Read more about Robbie Davis-Floyd's fascinating work at her website here. **
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