Ode to Birth Activist & Pioneer Sheila Kitzinger

by faithgibson on April 20, 2015

in Contemporary Childbirth Politics

Repost from UK newspaper ~ The Guardian


Sheila Kitzinger, the “high priestess of natural childbirth”, has died at the age of 86.

She could reasonably be said to have done more than anyone else to change attitudes to childbirth in the past 50 years. It was her belief that childbirth should not be reduced to a pathological event and she waged a relentless crusade against its medicalisation. She felt obstetricians had taken control, pushing aside the hands-on experience of midwives and the personal needs and wishes of mothers.

Kitzinger believed birth should be seen and experienced as a highly personal and social event, one that was even sensual and sexual. She promoted birth practices that were far more women-centred and humanised than those followed in most hospitals in Britain, and other western societies.

She suggested that women should draw up their own birth plans and decide for themselves whether, among other things, they might want to move around during labour or even give birth in water.

Body awareness, innovative relaxation techniques and special breathing patterns were all elements she promoted. More controversially, she advocated the acceptance of labour pain, seeing it as a side effect of a task willingly undertaken ‑ pain with a purpose.

The impetus for her career and her vocation was her mother, who worked in an early family planning clinic and was an active campaigner for birth control. Sheila recalled how her mother would see and counsel women in her own sitting room, with her daughter hiding behind the sofa listening.

“Mother was passionately concerned about different aspects of women’s lives, but she left school when she was 14 and never had the education to do the things she needed to do,” Kitzinger once recalled. “I felt that I had the education and therefore it was my duty to take her work forward.”

She was born to Alec, a tailor, and Clare Webster in Somerset and was educated in Taunton at Bishop Fox girls’ school. After training to teach drama and voice production, she instead went to Oxford, where she studied social anthropology at Ruskin and St Hugh’s colleges.

She had two passionate concerns in life: the marginalisation of people who did not fit into society for some reason, and women and childbirth. In 1951 she went to the department of anthropology at Edinburgh University to carry out research into British race relations.

In 1952 she married the economist Uwe Kitzinger. Her first child was born four years later when her husband was in the diplomatic service and they were living in France. Sheila chose a home birth, which was highly shocking to her fellow diplomatic wives at the time.

In 1958 she joined the advisory board of the newly formed Natural Childbirth Trust (NCT, renamed the National Childbirth Trust in 1961) and soon afterwards became a consultant to the International Childbirth Education Association, in the US, both organisations inspired by the writings of the British obstetrician Grantly Dick-Read. She began to develop her “psychosexual approach” to birth.

Kitzinger researched styles of childbearing and preparation for childbirth in societies as varied as those of the Caribbean, US, Canada (among the Inuit), China, South America and in Africa. In Britain she taught couples and trained teachers from the NCT as well as lecturing widely in North and South America, Israel, Europe and Australia.

But it was in 1962 that Kitzinger came to real prominence, with the publication of her book The Experience of Childbirth. Radical at the time, it was a powerful exposition of her argument; a woman-centred view of childbirth.

In the late 1950s and early 60s the medicalisation of childbirth was at its peak and Kitzinger’s message, that birth is a potent and exhilarating experience in which women’s needs and choices should be paramount, struck a chord with many.

An updated version of Sheila Kitzinger’s bestselling classic

The book’s impact was considerable. Up until then, enemas, shaving and episiotomies had been unquestioned routines in modern childbirth and seen as essential. As a result of the book, the publicity surrounding it and Kitzinger’s efforts, these views began to be challenged. The book ran to several editions and was updated and expanded as The New Experience of Childbirth in 2004.

Kitzinger became a prolific writer and later publications included:

  • Birth Over Thirty (1982)
  • Birth Over Thirty-Five (1994)
  • Women’s Experience of Sex (1983)
  • Giving Birth: How It Really Feels (1987; a revised edition of her 1971 book Giving Birth)
  • Breastfeeding Your Baby (1989)
  • Ourselves As Mothers (1992)
  • The Year After Childbirth (1994)
  • Becoming a Grandmother (1997)
  • Rediscovering Birth (2000), The Politics of Birth (2005)
  • Birth Crisis (2006)

Other books such as Education and Counselling for Childbirth (1977) and The Good Birth Guide (1979) extended her argument that problems in childbirth could be reduced through education and by using a range of relaxation techniques. In all she wrote more than 30 books, translated into many different languages, on birth, sexuality, breastfeeding, childcare, motherhood and grandparenthood, many of which were bestsellers.

Her 1980 book Pregnancy and Childbirth, revised as The New Pregnancy and Childbirth, with the lastest edition published in 2011, has sold more than a million copies.

As well as writing her books, she did considerable research into the induction of labour, epidurals, hospital and midwifery care, home births and being a grandmother, and she was the first person to research and write about women’s feelings regarding episiotomy. She had many papers published in professional journals and articles in the popular press and was a frequent broadcaster. She also counselled women who had had distressing birth experiences.

At the Open University (1981-83) she led the team assessing information on pregnancy and childbirth. She was actively involved in midwifery education in many countries and was honorary professor at Thames Valley University (now the University of West London), teaching on its MA course in midwifery at what was then the Wolfson School of Health Sciences. Over the years she was also an advocate for pregnant women and new mothers in prison.

Her passionate enthusiasm for natural childbirth had a personal aspect. Her own experience of birth was of five exhilarating, enjoyable labours without complications. Commenting on the struggle as a mother to reconcile her own career needs and aspirations with those of her five daughters she once said:

“I suppose there’s a little bit of me that thinks, if I’d stayed home, and not argued so much, then it might have been easier for some of the girls to have gone and done their own thing. But I don’t think you can prepare girls for growing up for the world in which we live today, a world which needs to be changed, by simply seeing yourself in the mother role. I wanted to have warrior children.

Kitzinger was an intensely likeable woman – warm, intelligent, funny and youthful to the end. She was also unashamed and forceful about being a feminist social revolutionary, her belief centred on the opportunity for women to reclaim their bodies. What set her apart from many other campaigners is that she did not let her deeply held views turn into inflexible dogmatism.

She supported elective caesareans, accepting that not all women found childbirth as pain-free and delightful as she did. She was open to conciliation with those she opposed and accepted that there was an opposite side to her revolution that had, at times, been damaging. Women who feel they have “failed” to give birth naturally can be as distressed as those who have felt cheated by having had their births taken over by epidurals, drips and episiotomies. It was Kitzinger’s flexibility of view and her attempt at empathy with other women that made her stand apart in the natural childbirth field.

She was a birth activist who campaigned for choice. Her crusade was to change the culture in which women give birth and she largely succeeded. She was appointed MBE in 1982 in recognition of her services to education for childbirth. Her autobiography, A Passion for Birth: My Life – Anthropology, Family and Feminism, is due to be published next month.

She is survived by her husband and five daughters.

Sheila Helena Elizabeth Kitzinger, childbirth campaigner and writer, born 29 March 1929; died 11 April 2015

Editor’s personal note: One of my client’s had a very nice PHB on April 11th, 2015, the day of Sheila’s verbal graduation to the Great Beyond.

I’m sure she was looking down from Heaven in approval.

faith ^O^


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