Scientology Silent Births

I get many requests to comment and interview so I was not surprised by an enquiry from Cord Jefferson who is culture editor on GOOD, a cool magazine produced out of Los Angeles. He asked me about whether there was any science to the Scientologists belief of “silent births.”

John Travolta’s wife Kelly Preston had appeared on Wednesday’s edition of the Today Show extolling the benefits of giving birth in total silence because L Ron Hubbard had claimed that the single source of human psychosomatic illnesses is all the hullabaloo that goes on during birth. According to his teaching, our reactive minds are forever tarnished by the cacophony of childbirth.

Cord asked me whether there was any science to this. My reply was short

Really? What a strange belief. Frankly, I doubt it makes much

difference. The intrauterine environment is surprisingly noisy.

Sorry not to be more helpful

Imagine my surprise to see my response printed verbatum under the heading, “There’s No Science to Support Scientology’s ‘Silent Birth.” Thank Hubbard, I didn’t say anything more libelous as the Scientologists are notoriously litigious.

Researchers have found that the intrauterine acoustic environment is dominated by maternal sounds–heartbeat, breathing, the mother’s voice, borborygmi and sounds caused by body movements. Background noise is never below 28 dB and can rise to 84 dB when the mother is singing. Below 28dB is very quiet but 84dB is approaching levels at which sustained exposure can lead to hearing loss! We know that the fetus can learn their own mother’s voice as well as the theme tunes to soap operas watched during pregnancy, so if anything, Scientologists should be more concerned about what is said during pregnancy, not just birth.

Still, it is not all entirely hokum. As my colleague Andy Meltzoff’s pointed out, it can’t do any harm. In fact, it has been known for ages that mothers given choices over their own childbirth have a much more positive experience. This is the old illusion of control finding that we can tolerate more stress and pain if we believe we can do something about it. So whether it is silent delivery suites, scented candles, or verbally abusing the man who made you pass something the size of a bowling ball down your pelvic cavity, then pretty much anything goes.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “Scientology Silent Births

  1. So my wife is really into the whole natural birth community — in fact, if all goes well, our second child should be born at home any day now. (You can come out any time now, little buddy.. really!) As a result, I’ve seen videos of women giving birth, completely unmedicated, claiming — and appearing to all outward appearances — to not really experiencing pain at all per se, saying it’s more like they feel really tired. And as you say, there’s plenty of empirical data to support the contention that women can have a much more positive experience than many do. So it’s maybe not completely hokum…

    Now for the flip side: For the vast majority of women, an unmedicated birth still hurts like hell! If that’s what you want — as my wife does — that’s great, but I am very uncomfortable with elements of the natural birth community that almost seem to be trying to shame women into having a natural birth. It’s not for everyone, and that’s okay! (The Scientologist belief in “silent birth” appears to be the pinnacle of this unacceptable shaming of women) Furthermore, there is a disturbingly large overlap between the natural birth community with the anti-vax loons, homeopathy believers, and other forms of alt-med that makes me highly uncomfortable. (Even our midwife has made me a little uncomfortable as of late with how aggressively she is pushing vitamin D… yes, it’s probably harmless at worst in the doses she is talking about, and she may even turn out to be right, as mainstream medicine is having quite a rethink about the benefits of vitamin D… but she is making claims that are way beyond what the data presently supports, and I must say I don’t like it!)

    I’ve also heard home birth advocates overselling the safety of doing a birth at home. Some claim that for a low-risk pregnancy, you and the baby are safer at home than in the hospital. Now, this is not quite as oddball as you might think — one must weigh the rapid availability of advanced medical care against the increased risk of infection, the lower bar for switching to Cesarean, etc… but again, the data does not support this. The advocates who claim this are basing it on a single study (forgive me that I can’t recall the methodology, size, or location offhand) which found a relative risk factor of 0.9 for perinatal mortality. The preponderance of the data that is out there points (IMO) to a relative risk factor probably slightly above 1.0, but not much. And anybody who’s being honest has to admit the data leaves a huge amount of uncertainty (It’s a rather hard topic to study — for obvious reasons, an RCT is unethical, and blinding is literally impossible! Furthermore, everyone, whether pro- or anti-home birth, agrees that it is only safe for low-risk pregnancies, but how one defines “low-risk” is tricky… and for a number of reasons it is difficult to apply the same criteria to hospital vs. home births to determine which are “low risk”). So when people go around claiming it’s safer to do it at home, oh man, that really bothers me.

    FWIW, I would not be surprised to find that morbidity rates were lower at home, i.e. you are more likely to have complications in the hospital, due to things like increased risk of infection, a lower threshold for engaging in unnecessary (in hindsight) interventions, etc… Virtually everyone — there are some high profile exceptions, but most everyone — agrees that the C-section rate in the US is way too high, but nobody is quite sure what to do about it. On an individual case-by-case basis, people tend to think, “Better safe than sorry,” i.e. let’s make this a controlled situation, even if that is certain to result in a longer recovery period and increased risk of complications, so that things don’t get out of hand without us realizing it. But you apply that reasoning on a systemic basis, and it’s a clear overall harm.

    I dunno, I’m rambling now. Anyway, natural and home birth is an interesting topic, one that lies at the intersection of (unfortunately) a whole lot of woo-woo; an ongoing significant rethink in the mainstream medical community over the cost/benefit of a highly medicalized birth (look to the NHS’ recent decision to start supporting home births); and some very deep questions about our values, both as individuals and as a society (Should a mother be able to choose to slightly increase the risk to her unborn child if she believes it will result in a much more fulfilling experience? Or is that selfish, and the only thing that matters is a healthy child? If the latter, then why do we let pregnant women ride in cars when it’s not absolutely necessary — isn’t that equally selfish? And if the former, where do we draw the line — can you give birth unassisted while base jumping?)

    It’s all very fascinating, and frankly I sometimes find myself second-guessing my own thoughts and opinions on the topic. Of course, that’s somewhat moot, since my wife has ultimate decision making power over her body, and I would find it somewhat misogynist for men like you and me to be making strong proscriptive statements about what women should do in these situations… Anyhoo, just a whole lot of rambling thoughts that I think are at least tangentially related to your post.

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  3. Whether there is value in ‘silent birth’ or not (I doubt there is any epistemological research on the matter), the real head-scratching part of the whole idea is that people do this simply because L. Ron thought it was a good idea! Like all of the other pontifications of Scientology it’s just the idiotic brain-fart of a B-grade science fiction writer with a loose grip on reality.

  4. Andrew Atkinson

    – and, what follows (anaglyph) from a natural worry about Scientology’s lack of support by those otherwise and sufficiently educated, is that it continues to recruit command over the lives of vulnerable people in need, so derive mass support (because many of us ARE vulnerable) and continue to be able to lie, protected, under a thinly veiled social layer of respect for the variety and difference in and between various cultural states of affairs.

    Scientology: I say, “I’ve got one pound and thirty-two pence in my pocket, and a head FULL of questions” – but I bet, now that you know how much money I’ve got, you can’t really be bothered to explain an awful lot at all…

    Why would it matter whether or not a birth was silent? The beauty or absurdity of birth (whether it be smashing lights, exploding doctors, or total blasphemy) is for the eyes of the parent to discern – likely, an esoterical position to be in and a joy only worth explaining to the child itself as it grows.

    But I would like to buy some points so I can get to the next level anyway. Do they take cheque?

  5. William P.

    The so called church of Scientology is built upon what people envisage to be true. Anybody can concoct beliefs and label that as “truth”. Its a big cult that has appeal for those lame enough to accept Scientology as genuine.

  6. Rae

    Silent childbirth? What a load of guff! It never ceases to amaze me that otherwise sentient beings will believe whatever bunkum some loon cares to make up. And how curious it is that a man feels he has the knowledge and experience to issue instructions on giving birth. Ha!

  7. I can’t wait to use borborygmi in a sentence tomorrow

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