The Lottery Of Life

Twelfth instalment - Born Under A Bad Sign 2

In terms of one’s luck in life, as I defined it in the previous instalment, there are two aspects of being born. There is the practical business of being born; and there is the influence of the circumstances into which one is born. The two aspects interact, in that the latter can affect the former, in particular as regards the extent to which the circumstances into which one is born (for instance the adequacy or otherwise of the available medical services) can ameliorate the damage that can occur during the practical business of being born.

For the purposes of this instalment I’ll concentrate on the practical business of being born. This will be the obstetric instalment. The physical process of being born can increase or diminish the good and bad luck that the sperm, egg, zygote, blastocyst, embryo and foetus acquired before conception, at conception, and during gestation.

Birth is dangerous, for both mother and baby. I’ll set down some statistics about maternal mortality – the risk of a woman dying as a result of giving birth. If you’re unlucky enough to be born in South Sudan, there is a one in a hundred chance that your mother will die as a result; if you’re born in Norway, the chance is one in fifty thousand. These are 2020 figures.

A 2006 paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine provides the following facts:

  •  in pre-industrial England (1700–50) the maternal mortality rate was the same as it is now in South Sudan
  •  maternal mortality in England and Wales declined erratically and slowly between 1850 and the mid 1930s – by which time the chance of one’s birth causing the death of one’s mother was about one in three hundred 
  •  from the late 1930s to 1950 there was a very steep reduction in childbirth-related maternal deaths, and there has been further reduction since; nowadays pregnant British women are at little more risk than their Norwegian counterparts
  •  the four main killers of women at and after childbirth are pyrexia, haemorrhage, convulsions and illegal abortion; the one main reason for the reduction in deaths in wealthier nations is, simply, antibiotics; other factors are contraception (and thus smaller families and more time between births), better antenatal care, including better nutrition, the availability of blood banks, better midwifery and obstetrics practices, and the availability of legal abortion.

This is relevant to the luck of the baby, of course. It’s not the best start in life if your mother dies giving birth to you.

Birth is a dangerous business for the baby, too.

UNICEF reports that there is a four in one hundred chance that you’ll die within 28 days of birth in Pakistan and (again) South Sudan. It’s advisable to avoid being born in these countries, and many others with neonatal death rates only a little better. It’s better to be born in the UK, for instance, where the chance of neonatal death is a mere three in one thousand. The main causes of neonatal death, according to the World Health Organisation, are pre-term birth; inability to breathe; and birth defects.

A lot can go wrong when you’re being born; enough to kill you. However an individual who dies at or soon after birth falls outside the scope of this blog. My focus is on the survivors. My purpose is to build an argument about the factors – the good and bad luck – that determine the circumstances in which an adult finds him or her self.

The worst that can happen at birth – neonatal death – is too terminal to fall into any category of luck. However there are many things that can happen that are less than the worst, and they very much can be regarded as good or (in most cases) bad luck that affect the individual for life.

I found this on the web site of the College of Cranio-Sacral Therapy (ccst.co.uk/birth-trauma):

The nature of your birth can be one of the most crucial factors in determining your whole future – whether for better or for worse, whether as a positive influence or a negative influence – not just your babyhood or your childhood, but the very nature of your whole life.

On the positive side, a fluent and easy birth may contribute to a healthy, happy baby, who subsequently enjoys a contented and comfortable childhood and consequently develops the skills and confidence which lead to a happy and successful life.

On the other hand, birth can be very traumatic. It can result in severe physical disabilities which significantly limit development and capability.

There are of course many stages in between these two extremes, but ultimately each and every one of us is significantly affected by the nature of our birth to a greater or lesser extent.

In its most severe manifestations, a difficult birth may lead to brain damage, cerebral palsy or autism . . . In less severe cases, it may lead to dyslexia, dyspraxia, learning difficulties, hyperactivity, epilepsy, obsessional behaviour, personality disorders, and a wide range of developmental difficulties.

But in each and every one of us (supposedly “normal” individuals) the nature of our birth, in some form or other, may play an important fundamental role in determining every aspect of our nature – our physical constitution, our underlying level of health and strength, our mental ability, our emotional stability, our muscular co-ordination and consequently our sporting and other motor skills. Compression, tension and restriction around the base of the cranium may significantly restrict blood supply to the brain, with profound consequences on brain development, affecting our intelligence, our memory, our academic ability . . .

The College of Cranio-Sacral Therapy argues my case rather more forcefully than I might have done. I’m not entirely convinced by the ‘emotional stability’ point, for instance. On the other hand an autistic friend has told me that autism can sometimes have something to do with a difficult birth. Cranio-sacral therapy appears to reside in that area of treatments that are usually described as ‘alternative’ or ‘holistic’ – or ‘unscientific’. Let’s put it this way: I won’t be signing up for cranio-sacral therapy. It may also be significant that most of the web sites I can find that set out the consequences for a person of a traumatic birth are those of law firms touting their expertise in obtaining compensation for medical negligence. However, the text extract above, while it should be taken with a large pinch of salt, does suggest a number of ways in which what happens during an individual’s birth can affect the rest of his or her life.

In sum: if your birth is uneventful, you’ve had good luck. On the other hand if you’re born too early; or you grow too big in the womb; or you’re slow coming out; or you come out feet first, or bottom first, or shoulder first, in fact anything but head first; or you get the umbilical cord wrapped round you, or it prolapses; or your mother’s waters break too soon – that may be bad luck, as the consequences may range from mild to severe; or at the least your physical or mental development after birth may be diverted, a little or a lot, from the path dictated by your DNA and your gestation in the womb.

In the next instalment – which might have to be entitled Born Under A Bad Sign 3 – I’ll discuss the second aspect of birth: the effects on an individual’s life of the circumstances into which he or she is born. 

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.