Last week, I was at a dinner function where a charming lady engaged me in conversation about the birth of her young granddaughter. ‘The private hospital was excellent,’ she said. ‘And the obstetrician was really famous.’
This is a line, almost word for word, that I have heard often since I have become visibly pregnant. In fact, it is the third time I have heard this comment about exactly the same hospital and the same medical practitioner. And the really weird thing is that despite the obstetrician being supposedly famous, no-one can actually remember his/her name without furtive resort to text messaging the patient. Nor were all the birth experiences what I would term especially positive (although the individuals involved might never admit to this).
I have now started to get a bit cheeky. After people tell me what a wonderful experience their daughter/wife/sister/cousin had with their famous (and therefore expensive) doctor at the private (and exclusive) hospital, I then ask about the birth itself. ‘Was it a natural birth,’ I ask. ‘Well, no she opted for a caesarean,’ is the usual reply. ‘But the room was luxurious and the food was fabulous.’
I find this unquestioning acceptance of inevitable intervention somewhat bizarre. Surely a trusting relationship with one’s practitioner, and the experience of a stress-free birth free from as little intervention as possible should be primary motivations for child birth? Yet here in Taiwan when I tell people that, barring a serious medical contingency, I want a natural birth without resort from pain relief (just like that experienced with my son) they look at me like I am nuts. ‘Wouldn’t you rather have a famous practitioner?’ I can almost hear them thinking. ‘Surely it is dangerous to seek to let nature take its course seeking a natural delivery rather than to trust someone qualified to take charge?’
I am not suggesting that famous practitioners are in any way negligent or bad. The fact that they have a good reputation means that they have appropriate qualifications, dedication to their job and are far from being some shonky back-yard operator. But what I am surprised about is the general lack of knowledge amongst women about some of the more invasive practices used in many Taiwanese maternity hospitals, especially the more high-end establishments. I thought at first this was a communication issue because Chinese was not my native langauge and I am finding I need to assertively drag information out of my obstetrician. But from speaking with Taiwanese mothers the common theme seems to be ‘lack of respect’, and a sense of disempowerment because they didn’t know what was happening (or going to happen) during the birth itself. Is it any wonder many Taiwanese women stop after having only one child?
While not all births Taiwan are traumatic, the translation of an article in Common Health Magazine 2003 (Taiwanese Women: Why Aren’t You Angry) gives a picture of some of the out-dated and interventionist practices still commonly used — don’t read if squeamish. I understand from speaking with doula and childhood educator Angela Chang that some of the medical practices are still in use, although some are gradually being phased out or at least not administered without permission. I find it odd that on the one hand Taiwanese are so reliant on traditional medical practices postpartum (e.g. the practice of one months’ confinement post birth is almost mandatory), yet so rigidly clinical in the lead up to and during the birth itself. For example, it is next to impossible to find ante-natal yoga/relaxation classes, let alone merging of complementary health care such as using acupuncture or Chinese medicine to prepare for birth. And most birth classes are run by pharmaceutical or other medical companies, so are hardly impartial. (A key exception is the informative English-language birthing classes that Angela runs at Parents’ Place.)
We are currently in the process of changing our birthing arrangements to deliver at a birth center instead of a private hospital. We visited the birth center recently, and were impressed by the calm and friendly atmosphere — and the freedom of choice of delivery. I casually mentioned our thinking to one or two society ladies when they asked about my hospital arrangements; they were quite shocked that I would even think of changing, especially as the birth center is out in the suburbs while the private hospital is centrally located (and expensive). So I think from now on I will just tell them I am still going with the private hospital, while quietly go ahead and doing what my husband and I believe is best for us and our baby.
What do you think about the medical practices in Taiwan’s maternity hospitals?