Inside Australia's 'wild birthing' trend and why the law allows it

The recent deaths of newborn twins in northern NSW has thrust the trend into the spotlight.

Wild birthing, also known as free birthing, has been driving headlines following the tragic deaths of twin babies delivered at a home near Byron Bay earlier this month as Australians grapple with the complexity of a person's right to choose a so-called "sovereign" birthing experience and the dangers that can arise when medical advice is eschewed.

At 2am on February 11, paramedics were called to a couple's home in Mullumbimby, responding to reports of a concern for welfare due to an apparent wild birth gone wrong. One of the twins died at the scene while the other later died at Tweed Heads Hospital. It is understood the pair did not know they were having twins, who were ultimately born prematurely at 23 weeks.

What is wild birthing?

Wild birthing, or free birthing, means to give birth without a medically trained doctor or midwife — though it does not necessarily mean the person is against any medical intervention at all.

Those who choose to have a free birth sometimes also choose to have a wild pregnancy, which is when a pregnant woman chooses not to seek outside prenatal care from a doctor or midwife during the pregnancy, including obtaining ultrasounds or other scans.

Free birth advisor and mother to two free-birthed babies in the US, Aubrey Siebe, told Yahoo News Australia one of the "big misconceptions" of free birthers is that they "reject all medical care".

Image of a newborn baby with a doctor cutting the umbilical cord.
An anonymous midwife has said she would not attend a home birth due to the amount of emergencies she has seen that require immediate surgery. Source: Getty

"Women who free birth pick and choose what they do," she said. "Some women still like to have an obstetrician and go through all of the scans and tests that they feel necessary, some of them have midwives. Then some others — they coined the term 'wild pregnancy' — don't do any of those things at all."

Free birthing advocate defends practice as 'safe'

Aubrey argues that "free birth can be the safest option for most women" and told Yahoo she thinks "interventions" can prove more harmful than good – a potentially dangerous claim at the heart of the movement.

"The more that people learn about birth physiology, the more they start to understand certain things like having strangers [there] and all of the interventions that are introduced in the medical world, inhibit the natural flow of birth," she said. "Most people view us as reckless, we're actually doing everything very intentionally."

An Aussie midwife, who has asked not to be named, was quick to dispute this though, sharing how unsafe free births can be after seeing "many obstetric emergencies" that require early detection and immediate surgery.

"Free births are very unsafe because you have no trained professional there," she said. "There are a lot of things in a home birth that can be picked up early and prevented by a trained midwife."

Tragically, seven baby deaths have been linked to free births in South East Queensland and Northern NSW since 2022.

Left image of Aubrey, who is an advocate for free births. Right image of Professor Stewart who is a health law expert.
Aubrey (left) is an advocate for free births. Professor Stewart (right) explains why pregnant women are allowed to choose how they give birth. Source: Supplied

The legal side of choosing a free birth

While the choice of the couple in northern NSW to have a wild birth has been condemned by some, it is allowed in the eyes of the law. This is because of a legal principle known as the "born alive rule" — where a foetus is not recognised as a "person" until it is born alive and "endowed with personhood", says Cameron Stewart, a Professor of Health, Law and Ethics and The University of Sydney Law School.

"When mum makes a decision about her interactions with healthcare services, everyone ethically would be encouraging her — particularly if it was twins— not to have a child in an uncontrolled situation," he said. "But it's not a situation where we could force her to come into the hospital or a maternity unit."

This rule is in place to ensure they do not "diminish a mum's right of choice" because then it becomes a "slippery slope" about regulating pregnant women, Prof Stewart explained.

"By necessity, they would end up as second-class citizens who would have less rights over their bodies than other people," he said.

"I get people are very upset, and that's a totally understandable emotional response to the death of two children, which is completely preventable. But people's own religious views, we don't normally allow them to manifest themselves in laws about controlling people's bodies — especially when there is not a uniformity of religious belief on the issue."

Rise in free births due to 'inadequate maternity care options'

Free birthing is rare in Australia with 97 per cent of women giving birth in a hospital, but critics say a lack of quality alternatives – coupled with advocacy by social media influencers – is helping to fuel the rising trend.

While the law permits a pregnant person's freedom to choose, insurance rarely covers midwives attending home births unless it is through a publicly funded home birth program — which can be restrictive and typically does not cover anyone considered "high-risk", for example, those with a "high BMI". Private midwives are also not insured so are costly and hard to find.

A 2020 research paper by Australian academics found that while some women are led to choose a free birth due to their mistrust of the medical system or trauma from a previous birth, difficulty in obtaining the appropriate at-home care is also leading some to choose a free birth.

"It is becoming clear that a rise in the rates of free birth and homebirth with risk factors in Australia is symptomatic of inadequate maternity care options," the report concluded.

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