Born today

9 March 2011

 The byrth of mankynde, Eucharius Rösslin. Wellcome Images
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The byrth of mankynde (detail), Eucharius Rösslin. Wellcome Images

One thing we all have in common is that we arrived here by being born.  This week, Wellcome Collection begins Born Today, a series of events looking at childbirth. Series curator Thereza Wells explains the inspiration for the series, and below, we ask you to tell us your own birth stories.

One of the few experiences that are without doubt universal to all humans is the act of being born. It is an event of which we have had no choice. As parents we are profoundly affected by the birth of our children. We have all experienced or heard and been moved by stories of the birth of a child. It is always topical and rarely leaves the pages of the newspapers, whether for political, medical or social reasons. The meaning of the word birth is so powerful that we use it to represent an extensive array of created things and ideas.

On 10 March, Wellcome Collection will launch a series of 4 evening events dedicated to childbirth, entitled, Born Today. The first event, Giving Birth, will discuss how dramatically different the experience is depending on where you are in the world. One focus will be maternal mortality. In the West most of us do not consider birth a life-threatening experience. However, in developing countries, this is a very real fear. Every day 1,000 women and girls in the world die in pregnancy and childbirth.  99% of these deaths occur in developing countries. For every woman who dies, 20 more are injured or disabled as a result of the pregnancy or birth. Safe Hands for Mothers and The White Ribbon Alliance are two of a number of groups trying to reduce this shocking statistic by improving conditions for expectant mothers and their babies and providing education and reliable health care.

Another focus of Giving Birth will be on the work of midwives in the UK today. The vast majority of cultures have had a place for the midwife. Historically it has been the position of a woman, often a grandmother (in many languages, the word is similar or the same) with experience of pregnancy and childbirth. The name in English is derived from ‘with wife’.  Although the first book on midwifery in England, The Byrth of Mankynde, was published in 1540, the practice had existed long before this time. Both Pliny the Elder (first century AD) and Soranus (second century AD) give us a good idea of the practices of midwives and physicians in the Greco-Roman world.

Midwives were expected to carry out a number of duties beyond assisting in labour including, confirming a pregnancy, diagnosing virginity, recording the birth or death of the baby, performing abortions, looking after the baby during the first year and looking after the sick. Often, the care was supplemented by superstitious practices, sometimes to the detriment of the mother and baby. In sixteenth century England it became the duty of the Church to regulate midwives by issuing them with licenses as a way to ensure the practice was being carried out by reputable people (possibly also to safeguard mothers and newborns from witches and to ensure that baptisms were being carried out properly).

Midwives today are thankfully not expected to carry out the array of duties once given them. But they face different challenges, including shortage of staff, which will be discussed.

Tell us your story

One of the most common responses when I tell people about this series, is to retell a birth story. These stories are often of celebration, but also include examples of dramatic ‘close calls’ and recount tragedy as well as triumph.

If you have a birth story you’d like to share, please contribute it in the comments below.

Thereza Wells is Senior Researcher/Curator at artakt, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, University of the Arts London. The Born Today series continues on 17 March with, Engineering Birth, on 28 April with Describing Birth and on 5 May with Ritualising Birth.