Real women don't have caesareans

At least, that's what old Mr Leboyer told Jane Garvey on last weekend's Woman's Hour. Supposedly the grandfather of natural birth, Leboyer told Ms Garvey that her two elective caesareans were a mistake. Her babies were breach, he said? So what: it's natural. She should not have been a coward and should have delivered 'naturally', i.e. through her vagina, and without any painkillers or assistance.

Ms Garvey admirably kept her cool when she asked Leboyer whether he himself had ever given birth, naturally or otherwise. 'Everything I know, I learned from Woman', the old man replied. For years Leboyer was an obstetrician and, in his own words, he supposed that giving birth must be so painful he would inevitably give his patients chloroform. Which does really make one wonder how any of them would have been in a position to comment on the experience.

Never mind, because Leboyer tells us that nothing in the birth giving process can be put into words. In fact, none of the important things in life can be put into words. The birth giving experience is a secret that women discuss with no one, especially not men. Again, Jane Garvey is forced to remind the old man whose memory is clearly no longer at its best, that he is not a woman. But, sharper than I had given him credit for, Leboyer has an answer for this too: the secret cannot be told, but it can be guessed, by wise men. Here one can only assume that Leboyer himself is such a man. Jane Garvey, obviously, is not.

A wise man, of course, can put into words what women cannot. So he goes on to explain what the birthing process really is: it's libidinal - he checks with Garvey that she knows what this means - it is the ultimate goal of the sexual experience.

Jane Garvey takes her job very seriously: instead of killing the old man on the spot, she probes him about other aspects of his theory: are there no circumstances where the medicalisation of childbirth is at all useful? What about the fact that so many women die of childbirth in the developing world?

'A lie!' insists Leboyer. A myth made up to stop you feeling guilty when you have caesareans! Giving birth dangerously is an essential part of the experience of being a woman, he says. When a woman gives birth, there comes a point when she thinks she is going to die. Then she is no longer afraid of death. This is what makes her a real woman.

Now I'm all sympathies with the view that child birth is over-medicalised. There are way too many places where women are advised to have caesareans when they don't need them, and without them being properly informed about the adjoining risks. I also don't like that in hospitals, we are trussed up like animals, lying on our backs with our feet up in stirrups, when it's really the worst possible position in terms of ease and comfort. I also feel that more women should have the option of being attended by midwives or doulas during the birth process, rather than - often male - doctors. Incidentally, what is Leboyer's view on the place of the midwife? In the kitchen, making coffee!

Whatever next, we think? Should the husband be waiting outside, ready to light his cigar? Mais oui! Leboyer tells us that birthgiving is a private experience between the mother and the child. On no account should the husband be part of it as he would break the woman's concentration.

At the very least, one hopes at this point that what he says is meant to be empowering for women - in his own twisted way. Wrong again: women, he says, do nothing during the birth process. It is the babies that do all the work.

At this point, all we can do is thank Mr Leboyer for his wonderfully encouraging words and thank the universe that because he's ninety he won't be with us much longer to say those words. Oh yes, and tell every one you know not to buy his book. Much cheaper to buy toilet rolls at the super market.


Looking for Blue Sky said...

Why do people like this still get airtime? And yet one thing he said has a grain of truth 'When a woman gives birth, there comes a point when she thinks she is going to die.' That can certainly be true and can affect your view of death and dying. Except that when you're dying you're not also being asked to push out a baby!

Sandrine said...

I think what's even more surprising is how his book could be so popular as to merit a radio appearance! I like your point about dying. I wonder if somebody will come up to Leboyer's death bed and ask him to push!

Lindsay said...


I've never heard of this guy before, but he sounds awful.

(I was born by emergency cesarean, as was my sister. The LAST thing I'd want my mother to have heard is that she should feel ashamed for not having died, or lost either or both of us, before undergoing such an Unnatural procedure. Plus, I just don't think guys should be telling women how to give birth!)

(I've always felt a bit proud of the manner of my birth: "Macduff was from his mother's womb untimely ripp'd", etc.)

Sandrine said...

I love the perspective from the child born out a caesarean. For some reason, despite all his emphasis on the well-being of babies, Leboyer never ever talks of how people born that way (or another) feel about it. Nor does anyone else for that matter.

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