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The “Zero Risk” myth

February 10, 2012

As you may or may not know, I am a homebirth supporter. After one pretty terrible hospital birth and one that was not so bad but still made me feel like a number in a big, big system, I chose homebirth for my third child’s birth. In the end, I transferred in labour shortly before E2 was actually born. The ensuing trauma and internal debate about whether or not I made the right choice, is a matter for another post.

What I want to address here, as homebirth hits the headlines for the wrong reasons again, is the dangerous myth of zero risk. Two areas of interest to me where I see this myth continually perpetuated are birth and childhood immunisations (or rather, childhood vaccinations, since the vaccination does not necessarily confer immunity).

Whenever homebirth comes up in the media, there is a flurry of opinion pieces and commentary that runs along the lines of “I could never risk my baby’s life by birthing at home”. Now, firstly, there are studies that show homebirth, with a skilled midwife/birth attendant if not in general, is at least as safe as hospital birth, across infant mortality, infant morbidity, maternal mortality and maternal morbidity. Equally, there are studies that indicate the opposite. I’m not a statistics person so I’m not really going to try to argue that point. The point is, that you cannot completely remove the risk inherent in childbirth. It’s okay to say, I think it’s riskier to birth at home and I’m not comfortable with that. Equally I say that I don’t want to ever give birth in hospital again. You may not agree with my reasons; I may not agree with yours. Fine. But don’t say that I am choosing risk and you are choosing no risk.

There is no risk-free option.

There is risk in everything, since the only certainties in life are death and taxes. We all take steps to alleviate that risk, but we’re not going to agree on what are the right steps to take, and none of us will ever eliminate that risk altogether. To think that we can, or that we are, is dangerous because it prevents us from properly examining the pros and cons of any decision that we make. The media play on this, play on our fear and our ongoing desire to create a zero-risk environment, by creating hysteria and pitching one side against the other with no room for grey areas.

Don’t fall for it. Don’t let your decisions be dumbed down. Accept, intellectually, that there is always some level of risk, and weigh up your decisions carefully.

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