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Pushed and hushed

‘Don’t push yet.’
‘Get @#$%ed!’
‘Now, now, Juliette, you know you need to pant like a dog at this point.’
‘You do it then, if it’s so %^&ing easy.’
‘OK, now you can push.’
‘Don’t want to any more.’
‘Come on love, have a go …’


Ah, memories of the labour ward, or whatever they call it now. Probably now known as a best-practice-quality-assured-mutual-obligation extrusion facility complete with mission statement and vision commitment.

All you mums watching Birth Rites on SBS (8.30pm Thursday July 8) will remember, if you weren’t mercifully doped out at the time, how damned irritating everyone around you can be when you are trying to get a quart out of a pint pot. The main thing to remember is how important it is not to give a labouring woman a gun.

Trying to get the process right for most women without causing death and injury in the tricky business of birth is a balancing act between the constant need for emotional support and the occasional need for machines that go ping. (Monty Python fans will remember that machine, and the breezy unconcern of the obstetrician—John Cleese, of course.) If it was daunting for an urban woman, imagine what it must be like for Indigenous women, often transported far from their families in centralised hospitals to give birth in ways that are cut off from their culture. Birth Rites examines how this causes terrible social and medical problems: women will often avoid the local clinics until it is too late in their pregnancies to send them away into isolation from their families.

That reminded me of a documentary I saw on the ABC years ago, about the discovery of the need for basic hygiene in obstetrics. In Vienna in the early 19th century, pregnant women would get their cab drivers to circle the hospital until they were almost on the point of delivery, because they knew that the longer they were in the place, the more likely they were to die of puerperal fever, at the filthy hands of ignorant doctors. The paradox is a cruel one: in Australia at the exact same time, in parts where Indigenous societies hadn’t been reached by the white colonists, they were having babies cleanly and naturally, as they had done for countless thousands of years. The 21st century urban hospital system still threatens Indigenous existence, if not by infection, then by cutting women off from crucial support from their communities.

In Canada’s northern region, Inuit women have experienced the same problems, but now have a local birth centre with Indigenous midwives. In this way they can have the benefits of Western medicine where it is needed, without being separated from their culture. The Inuit have had similar problems to Australian Aboriginal people, but have enjoyed a far more enlightened government approach in recent years; notably, they have a treaty and some measure of control in health matters for their communities. There are many valiant individuals trying to make a difference in Indigenous health here, but Birth Rites makes one realise that the real obstacle is government. If Canada can do it, why can’t we?

Since August from the 13th onwards will be dominated by the Olympics, I can safely say that I will run from the room screaming whenever there is soccer, hockey, basketball, cycling or baseball. However, I will be watching avidly for the weightlifting, gymnastics, field athletics, boxing and some of the swimming. SBS will be picking up the stuff that Seven deems unpopular, and I think it will do well out of that, because people like me will switch on and watch the outré events that male sports fans tend to avoid. What we will agree on will be whatever incarnation the Roy and HG team come up with. I can never forget the way we all looked forward to The Dream in 2000. Who could forget such inspiration? Putting Barry White tracks with footage of the Graeco-Roman wrestling; the commentary that turned synchronised swimming and floor gymnastics from dagdom to cool joy. Here’s hoping that Seven gives them lots of time this year.

In the meantime, this double issue will see the welcome demise of yet another Big Brother, which was notable among reality shows this year in that it actually contained something real. When Merlin Luck emerged from the house, self-gagged with tape and holding a sign saying ‘Free th[e] Refugees’ he subverted the whole ghastly totalitarian charade. He was not the docile manipulee that such artificially constructed shows depend on. Having smuggled in his small fabric sign (they are not permitted any writing implements), he followed through courageously and refused to spoil the gesture by taking off the gag to have a deep and meaningless chat with the increasingly enraged Gretel Killeen. He reminded us that there are other people in this country who are confined and under surveillance, but who haven’t chosen to be treated like that. Is it too much to hope that this signifies the end of the whole damn dreary catchpenny faux-reality business? 

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.



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