Why Did a Leading “Freebirth” Advocate Change Her Story?
Shanley, for those who don’t know, is one of the foremost advocates of a a practice known as unassisted childbirth or “UC” (aka “freebirth”), in which a woman deliberately chooses to give birth without a midwife, doctor, or other medically trained assistant in attendance.
Proponents often assert that UC is safe because birth is natural, that a woman who is not “interfered with” is less likely to experience complications, and other patently ridiculous claims.
Shanley has four living children, all born without the assistance of a midwife or doctor. Her fifth child, also born without medical assistance, died shortly after birth.
The original version (scroll down after clicking the link) of this story (courtesy of the Wayback Machine) posted on Shanley’s site acknowledged that the baby was premature, that he had obvious congenital defects, and wasn’t breathing when he was born:
“At best, I was 35 weeks along, and while my pregnancy was normal, it was obvious there was something wrong with this baby. He wasn’t breathing, and the bones in his chest were malformed. Instinctively, I breathed into his nose and mouth. Suddenly he came to life. But several hours later, he simply closed his eyes and died. “ [Emphases added.]
The amended story now posted on the site omits the fact that Nicholas was likely more than one month premature, and that he had a possibly serious congenital defect:
“The baby wasn’t breathing, so instinctively, I breathed into his nose and mouth. Suddenly he came to life. Over the course of the next several hours, he nursed and slept. My boys woke up, David came home, and everyone was excited to meet our new baby.”
Both versions note that Shanley later called paramedics to take Nicholas to the hospital, and that he could not be revived.* A subsequent autopsy revealed that the baby had “a[n unidentified] congenital heart defect, influenza, pneumonia, and sepsis.”
In the original version, Shanley wrote:
“The coroner also said that Nicholas would have died regardless of where he had been born. Prematurity (let alone prematurity combined with a heart defect) is the leading cause of infant death, even in the hospital.”
The new version omits the comment about prematurity, and adds a new detail to the coroner’s reported remarks, specifically attributing the baby’s death to his heart defect:
“The coroner also said that the defect was severe enough that he didn’t feel Nicholas would have survived regardless of where he had been born.”
Why would Shanley change her posted story?
In styling herself leader of the UC “movement,” and using her personal stories as “evidence” of the benefits of UC, Shanley has come under scrutiny for both her public advocacy and her private actions. Recent media attention to the practice of UC has only increased that scrutiny.
The original version of Shanley’s story provides fodder for serious criticism:
- She knowingly chose to give birth to a baby at least 5 weeks premature without medical assistance on hand;
- She acknowledged that prematurity is the leading cause of neonatal death;
- Despite the fact that the baby was not breathing, and had obvious serious congenital defects, Shanley did not summon help until several hours later;
- The baby suffered from other life-threatening ailments—pneumonia, influenza and sepsis—that would likely have been detected and treated had he been born in hospital.
The new version effectively whitewashes Shanley’s behavior by removing any reference to the baby’s prematurity (and her knowledge thereof), the seriousness of prematurity, and by adding the new detail of the coroner’s speculation that the congenital defect would have killed Nicholas regardless of his place of birth.
In my opinion, the changes to Shanley’s story are a deliberate attempt to make UC appear safer, and Shanley herself less culpable in Nicholas’s death by painting it as an unavoidable event rather than the consequence of Shanley’s intentional choice to eschew medical care that might have saved her son.
* Edited 6/15/09 for clarity: It is unclear from Shanley’s story whether the baby died at home or in the hospital; her account seems to contain conflicting statements.