The Butlerian Jihad and Maternal Health
Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel Dune chronicles humanity’s interstellar civilization thousands of years into the future. (If you read it, you’ll notice more than a few similarities between Dune and Star Wars: A New Hope. George Lucas was very inspired by Dune and his initial versions of Star Wars were more of a reworking of it. Once he used a little more Force and a little less spice, the whole thing really took off.)
Anyway, in Herbert’s imagined human history of the future, there is at one point something called the Butlerian Jihad. Humans developed robots to do lots of things for them and became so cognitively lazy that the robots made the humans slaves for 900 years. Eventually, the humans got smart enough to realize that they didn’t need robots for everything, rose up and did away with the them. After that, specially trained humans called Mentats did all the computing. I think we’ve hit a similar problem with maternal health.
We have interventions of all kinds for giving birth- inductions, pain medication, cesareans, forceps, vacuum extraction. Formula feeding has changed the landscape of infant feeding in a single century. And I think we have become (in general) too dependent on them.
For example, I’ve encountered women who say, “I could never give birth without an epidural”. Well, if you were stranded by the side of the road en route to the hospital in late stage labor, your baby would come with or without an epidural! Women have been going into spontaneous labor for thousands of years and human biology has not changed to need the use of inductions on a regular basis. Ditto for c-sections. The vast majority our ancestors breastfed their babies, because babies who weren’t breastfed had a very slim chance of survival up until recently in human history.
Frank Herbert envisioned a universe without robots, but I don’t see a world without medical interventions for birth. When they are truly necessary, medical interventions can save lives. But like the inhabitants of the Dune universe, there is danger in becoming so overly reliant on technology that we give up our part. Medical interventions have side effects and when used on mothers and babies who don’t need them, they don’t do any good and can do harm.
And so, I propose that it is time that we institute our own personal maternal and child health Butlerian Jihad. It’s time to put medical intervention in its place as a measure for real emergencies and understand that our bodies are generally capable. For the vast majority of pregnancies, it is completely normal for a woman to go into spontaneous labor, deliver a baby vaginally (even without pain medication) and breastfeed the baby thereafter. Millions of years of biology are on our side.