Monday, April 4, 2011

Fetal Pigs

This week in my anatomy lab we had the opportunity to dissect fetal pigs. Dissection is something that I love, in another life, or maybe later in this one, I will be a surgeon. The inner workings of the body are fascinating.

OF COURSE there were many in the class who spent a lot of time sympathizing over the "poor baby pigs" and "but they are so cute", "it is just so cruel", refusing to take advantage of the opportunity to dirty their hands inside a body cavity.

On my way home, as I was rethinking the discoveries of the dissection (most amazing was seeing how the venous system of the umbilical cord ties into the venous system of the rest of the body) I flashed on an article a friend had shared with me earlier in the week, a report of a study on Maternal and Infant Mortality. An excerpt from the article reads:    

                 "Some 1,000 women and 2,000 babies died every day from easily preventable birth  complications…" (Emphasis is mine)

The article is focused on the fact that more midwives worldwide would serve to reduce the number of deaths that are being seen in impoverished nations; My heart focused on fetal pigs. Would the people in my class who were shocked and outraged at the loss of animal life have taken a moment of pause if they knew that during the 2 hour period we were in lab, approximately 83 human babies and 42 human mothers died because they lacked access to good food, clean water and a midwife? Here we were, in our charmed and privileged little world despairing because some baby pigs were euthanized in the name of science while families around the world were mourning the loss of their women and children. In my mind, the only reason to weep for those fetal pigs was thinking that, had one of them grown to butchering weight, a family somewhere in the world (maybe in our own back yard) might have been able to feed their children.

How lucky are we that we can slaughter our food source in the name of science to train the next generation of supposed "care" providers? (Cynicism is mine) How out of touch with reality are we to lament the perceived "senseless" death of ANIMALS while our brothers and sisters are losing their lives because they don't have food, water or access to rudimentary healthcare? I am the person in the corner talking to my little piggy, thanking its' spirit for the sacrifice it made, thanking the universe for the opportunity to better understand the intricacies of anatomy so that I can be the best care provider possible. I know that not everybody can see things this way. I know not everyone will cry through the article and feel deeply the unfairness of the world. I do, and I am thankful that I can feel that compassion and know that it will drive me to be the absolute best that I can be as a midwife, as a care provider, as a citizen of the world. I am thankful too that the squeamish and outraged people in my class have a measure of compassion in them as well, I just feel like it could be better placed.

I have been on the path of Midwifery long enough to realize that there will always be a struggle. A struggle for respect, a struggle for access, a struggle to maintain boundaries, a struggle to maintain marriages and care for kids while upholding our commitment to our mamas, babies and families. I have not yet been in the position to have to struggle for food, for water, for medicines for my mamas. I haven't had to watch a single one of them decide between eating enough to maintain a pregnancy or feeding her living children. I haven't watched a woman slip away as the blood slowly drains from her once lithe and dancing body because her placenta crawled through her uterus in search of sustenance. I have never handed a dead baby into a mother's arms or a newly motherless infant to its father. These things are happening EVERY DAY, more than once, 1,000 and 2,000 times a day and our sister midwives are out there struggling to stem the tide, to cheat Death of just one.

I am apprehensive. The numbers say that as I mature in my practice and as I see more mamas, I will experience these things first hand; Dead mamas, dead babies. Nobody likes to talk about this. Death of people in your care can mean death of your practice, of your spirit, of your career, especially if you are a homebirth provider in the Unites States because the cultural " we" takes it for granted that the beauty and miracle of birth and life is forever entwined with the miracle and beauty of death. I know that I am fortunate to be learning midwifery in an environment where normal, low risk pregnancy IS the norm and the safety net of medical technology is rarely far away. I have the luxury of serving a population of women who are willing to take responsibility for their own care, have clean water, access to a diverse range of fresh foods (if only they will choose to take advantage of it!!!) and the freedom to choose to give birth outside of the medical system should they so desire it.

I have to wonder, as I continue to pursue midwifery, how will I handle the realities? How will they shape me? Am I brave enough, mature enough, still flexible enough to attend births where there are far fewer guarantees of a good outcome? Will this kind of experience help or hinder me as a midwife? The answers will come and in the meantime, I am grateful to those Midwives who are serving the underserved populations, staring death in the face and yet able to celebrate those moments when life triumphs. Only the Universe knows if I will join their ranks. For the time being, I will continue my studies, attempt to maintain compassion and stay open to the possibilities.

My name is Annie, I am privileged to be a student of midwifery in the United State and I am thankful for fetal pigs.


  1. I'm a midwife and a vegetarian, and I'm having trouble seeing the logic in your argument. I never dissected a fetal pig, or any other creature, during my training, and I'm pretty sure it's not necessary for helping women survive childbirth. The global disparity in infant and maternal mortality rates is abhorrent. So is the way animals are used, abused and slaughtered for health care purposes. I don't think these are crimes that need to be ranked though.

  2. i'm a student midwife and a total fucking carnivore that can't imagine life without meat. I found this piece to be thought-provoking, though I understand why the two issues could really be unrelated. I don't think people in the U.S. are constantly thinking about human conditions elsewhere---we are constantly bombarded by the misery in our own lives...or something like that.

  3. As a human being, I can hold multiple emotions in my heart at one time. I can at once be sad for all of the animals exploited in the name of science, and for people in the world who are suffering. Your argument that one precludes the other doesn't make any sense to me.

  4. Personally, da midwif, I favor being bombarded by personal miseries while being simultaneously weighed with ruminations on human conditions everywhere. Why limit yourself? That's one part catty and two parts personal truth - but obviously, staying in burdened-land leaves us ineffective so there's always the search for keeping the heart of fire alive so we (I) can keep in action on all fronts.

    Ah well, Annie, you would have enjoyed the rest of the conference to be sure. It spoke to global maternal baby health on a lot of levels. I was very, very struck and heartened to learn that it IS possible to maintain a commitment to hands-off normal physiological birth approach in the developing world (while maintaining "mad" emergency skills for the other cases). I mean really, it's possible - most places will justify providing care that would never fly in the developed world because it's "better than they would get otherwise" and permit students to "learn and practice" on brown women, trample on cultures, etc. etc. But I'll say it again, because it reassures the heap of unpleasant observations I've made about what sometimes goes on when more privileged folks go galavanting around trying to help less privileged folks, it IS possible to provide rock-solid-heart-of-gold-keep-your-hands-to-yourself-midwifery that optimizes gentle birth for mothers and babies in the "developing" world (not thrilled with that term) while working as peers with local midwives and mutually learning/teaching and doing it all in a way that is received as appropriate, comfortable, and nourishing to the families involved. Yes! Oh yeah, and saving mama-baby lives.

    Vicki Penwell said that the number of (avoidable) maternal deaths happening is the equivalent of a jumbo jet filled with pregnant or just-given-birth mothers crashing every four hours, around the clock, every day. Yikes!

    And welcome to the blog, what a splash of an entry! I look forward to hearing more from you.

    I don't think that my path will likely ever confront me with the choice of dissecting any kind of fetuses, but if it did I probably would think it was incredible and also unsettling.

  5. tatiana, i wasnt speaking personally, per se, in the latter half of my comment. the people i have lived around and the people that i serve, have so much going on that it isnt really about limiting themselves. it is likely a privilege to make it through your day, tackle your own problems, and then be "concerned" about what is going on elsewhere. im not saying it is impossible, just not practic unless you have a vested interest outside the u.s. ie people who have family members elsewhere with whom they are in contact.