Want to see a natural birth? Go to a sheep farm

Humans just aren't very good at giving birth - we produce magnificently big-skulled babies and have skinny little pelvises. A natural birth may sounds wonderful in theory, but in practice it's wise to give nature a helping hand.

One of the cool ways that pregnancy prepares you for having an infant of your own is by thoroughly infantilising you. And so it was that I found myself – a grown-up person of 20 years with another person growing inside me – looking another woman in the face and inviting her to praise me for rubbing sweet almond oil onto the skin between my vagina and my arsehole. “I’ve been massaging my perineum,” I said, eagerly. “To stop me from tearing.”

My midwife had patiently talked me through my fears about caffeine consumption and pre-pregnancy test binge drinking, but this was too much. She fixed me with a look of piercing sympathy and said: “I don’t think that will help.” I was, of course, devastated. I believed sincerely that there was a right way and a wrong way to do pregnancy, and having got pregnant in the wrong way (by accident, living in a halls of residence), I wanted to do the rest of it right.

And that meant natural. There would be no C-section and no epidurals; there would be no tearing. I would follow all the advice down to the last drop of sweet almond oil. If the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists had published its guidance on chemical consumption in pregnancy back then, I would have diligently avoided Tupperware and paracetamol too. In exchange for my good behaviour, I expected to be rewarded with a blissful, natural labour that would end with my baby resting contentedly on my suddenly vacant belly, skin to skin.

If I’d been pregnant a few decades earlier, none of this would have been an option for me to consider. Choices weren’t available. Instead, you had doctors holding all the power in one hand and some alarming surgical steel implements in the other. In some hospitals in the 1970s, for example, it was routine for uninformed women to be given drying-up pills with their post-labour breakfast. They didn’t need to be asked, because the idea that anyone would want to breastfeed was so unthinkably gross to the medics in charge.

Such obstetric cruelty is what natural birth campaigners like Caroline Flint, interviewed in the Guardian at the weekend, opposed. It’s thanks in part to people like Flint that I was given a birth plan to fill out, and could hand it over to my midwife in confidence of it being observed. It’s also thanks to people like Flint that I believed there was a profound moral weight to what happened in my labour.

In her book, she writes that babies welcomed with the bright lights and loud voices of a hospital are taught “they may not always be welcome”; have a home birth, on the other hand, and you’re practically guaranteed to deliver a sensitive genius. (She also recommends that women should be “sexually aroused” while giving birth, which rather airily assumes that everyone is capable of getting turned on in a situation where it’s 50-50 whether you’ll shit yourself.)

All this assumes that nature is a kind and generous entity whose only concern is in getting babies from womb to world as safely and efficiently as possible. But nature is a half-arsed craftsman, capable of doing things perfectly when time and circumstances allow, and equally capable of doing things just well enough to shove a handful of DNA into the next generation.

Humans have many fine and distinctive qualities. We are a magnificently brainy animal, creating magnificently big-skulled babies. We’re also impressively upright, with skinny little pelvises to support our vertical frames. We are just terrific at walking and thinking. And as a consequence of those things, we’re not very good at giving birth. The best that can be said for our species’ efforts with labour is that it’s non-lethal often enough that we haven’t been forced to evolve anything better.

Birth is incontrovertibly a biological process, but you could hardly say humans are naturals at it. Want to see a natural labour? Go to a sheep farm during lambing and watch the offspring just slither out of the ewes’ behinds. And even the lambs get it wrong sometimes and try to bust out sideways or backwards. We do so much worse.

After two deliveries that could have finished me off without hospital assistance (one slow suffering, one shockingly swift), I decided that nature and me would only get on with a medical mediator. Safe labour requires listening to women and giving them confidence in their own decisions, but it also requires not telling them fairy tales about how everything will be OK if they just cast the right charms and follow the right rituals. Women are not, after all, the children when it comes to giving birth.


A pregnant woman with a painted baby on her belly takes part in the Movement for a Humanised Childbirth demonstration in Brazil. Photograph: Getty Images

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.