Enough airy-fairy mysticism

Issues surrounding childbirth should be tackled practically

On Radio 4, a two-part series has begun called Battle for Birth (Wednesdays, 11am). The bitter power struggle between midwives and obstetricians throughout most of the 20th century is fascinating - not least because, until the closing decades of the century, it was essentially a battle between men (the doctors) and women (the midwives and their patients). It is also salutary to be reminded of how things used to be. In the 1920s, 25,000 women died in childbirth each year. In the first part of the series (7 February) a Paisley midwife described vividly how, in the 1950s, she would attend deliveries with pennies for the telephone box, in case she needed to call for help, and shillings for the gas meter, because some patients were too poor to keep the room warm.

Still, the series is not without problems. Rather than simply report the facts, it makes its agenda - however worthy - too obvious. The presenter, Penny Marshall, went in to bat against the medics, and soon had the president of the Royal College of Obstetricians admitting that, postwar, maternity wards resembled production lines, where women were unthinkingly forced to submit to unnecessary "routines" such as episiotomies. But given that he was unlikely to do otherwise - thinking has changed in the 40 years since - why did Marshall sound so shrill? And why did she repeatedly use the word "medicalised" in what was clearly a pejorative sense? The inference is that "natural" (that is, non-medicalised) is best. But this is not the case. Natural isn't always good (puerperal fever is natural), just as "medicalised" (pain relief, anyone?) isn't always bad. What women want, surely, is a combination of the two.

What annoyed me most of all, however, was the generalisations the programme made. Birth, we were told at the start, is "so defining for every woman". This is not quite right. Let's forget, for a moment, those women who can't, or won't, have children. For the rest, birth is a defining experience for some, but not for all. I recall my grandmother telling me my mother was an only child for the sole reason that she had found childbirth - "They put my feet in stirrups!" - so monstrous. For her, it was a defining experience. But when I asked my mother what she could remember of my birth, or that of my brother and sister, she shrugged and said: "Not a lot. You just get on with it."

Choice is about making sure that women give birth in the best place for them, be that home or hospital - and that, as the campaigning obstetrician Wendy Savage pointed out, is down to NHS money and how it's spent. We need to be practical about this, not all airy-fairy and mystical.

Meanwhile, A Good Read is back (Tuesdays, 4.30pm). This is the best of Radio 4's book programmes. Open Book (Sundays, 4pm) is too rehearsed, and the monthly Book Club in the same slot comes with the hazard of being presented by James Naughtie. But A Good Read, in which Sue MacGregor and her guests merely recommend a volume they like, works by dint of simplicity: it is motored solely by bookish enthusiasm.

That said, only certain guests really cut the mustard. First up in this series were the philosopher Jonathan Ree and the writer Anne Karpf, who achieved the great feat of making Truman Capote sound boring. But I can't wait to hear Lynn Barber and Ann Leslie, both of whom are promised soon.

Pick of the week

Radio Club Presents . . . Mika
10 February, 8pm, Radio 2
The year’s hot young thing takes to the stage at the Maida Vale studios.

The Tchaikovsky Experience
10-17 February, Radio 3
The station clears its schedules for the composer’s complete works, in tandem with those of Stravinsky.

Don't miss . . .

The Brit Awards 2007
Wednesday 14 February, 8pm, ITV1. http://brits.co.uk

The British music industry's annual awards ceremony was once renowned for the rock'n'roll shenanigans of the guests. Jarvis Cocker mooned at Michael Jackson on stage in 1996, and in 1998 Danbert Nobacon of Chumbawamba threw a bucket of iced water over John Prescott.

After a number of incident-free years, the Brits organisers have returned to the original live format, hoping to recapture a little of the anarchic spirit. They promise that, with Russell Brand hosting and those bad boys Oasis (right) in attendance, someone is sure to misbehave. No pressure, then.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia