Wednesday, June 27, 2007


The ‘devil’ is certainly in the detail when it comes to doing business in China, but what many of us have not perhaps realised is that doing business with China, amounts, all too often, to ‘doing deals with devils’ and propping up a ‘slave’ economy.

The discovery of hundreds of workers, some of them children, forced to work in illegal brickworks in China is the latest atrocity to be reported, but in truth it is only one of many. Police officers raided underground brick factories and rescued hundreds of men and boys. Pictures showed the rescued workers dressed in rags and looking confused and bedraggled.

‘Made in China’ seems to be all too often synonymous with ‘Made by slave labour,’ it is just that most have turned a blind eye to it in the name of corporate profits and personal economy.

In recent years, several reports have exposed the harsh working conditions in Chinese toy factories, to quote just one example, which produce almost 75 per cent of the world’s output. The perspective behind many of these reports was to shame multinationals such as Wal-Mart, Mattel, McDonalds and KFC into ensuring decent conditions and pay in the plants that churn out their toys.

However, investigations last year by China Labour Watch show that the appalling exploitation of Chinese workers continues unabated. Three reports issued in September and December 2005 detailed working and living conditions in 13 factories in Dongguan City, Guangdong province.

The number of workers employed in the 13 surveyed factories varied from 300 to 4,000. Excessive working hours, debilitating temperatures of up to 38C, dangerous equipment, toxic glues, paints and solvents, cramped dormitories, abusive managers, crooked hiring practices and wages below even China’s legal minimum were the order of the day.

The working week was gruelling—a 13 to 15-hour day was common, with one day off a week or, in some cases, just one night off. During the peak season, typically from September to the end of May, workers were allowed only one day off a month. In some factories, mandatory all-night shifts of 16 to 19 hours were common during busy periods. Lunch and supper breaks accounted for 2.5 hours each shift.

Perhaps we have applied salve to our conscience by telling ourselves that, while there is a good chance that Chinese workers do not have the same conditions and rights that we do, they are in desperate need of paid work, of any kind, and doing business with China, without too many questions asked, is in their interests as a developing nation.

But is it? At what point do we hold China, international corporations and the buying public accountable for the appalling conditions of exploitation and abuse in which so many Chinese work?

We are quick to complain when jobs go overseas and yet suddenly quiet when we purchase goods which are cheaper because they are made in China - although not so much cheaper, in some instances. Take fashion, for example. It is quite some years now since much of our fashion manufacturing went to China and yet, despite the fact that top labels and designers are now having their goods made much more cheaply, the price tickets have not changed much at all. We have acquiesced in a market where we pay much the same price for goods which are made by poorly-paid workers and arguably to a lower standard of quality than when they were manufactured in Australia. Anyone who has lived or travelled in the Third World knows what workers are paid, in what conditions they labour and can quite easily make a comparison between the price, for instance, of a jacket made by an Australian tailor and one made in a Chinese sweatshop for a top Australian designer. Not surprisingly, the difference in tag price is not great and we all know those ‘profits’ are not going to the workers – but we buy the Chinese-made jacket all the same, because it saves us some money and we ignore the reality of its lesser quality.

The size of China and its economic power makes us all vulnerable if we allow a manufacturing system to be entrenched which is successful largely because it utilises what amounts to exploitative labour at best and ‘slave’ labour at worst. But equally as troubling as human exploitation is the way many things are produced in China in gross violation of international health and safety norms and which can put at risk not only workers, but those who buy the product.

There is no denying that China has done well in recent decades in its effort to develop and modernise, but that does not excuse too many Western observers from being blinded by its economic success and ignoring its many and often deadly violations of international norms. At a time when health-and-safety regulations are becoming ever more stringent in the European Union and the United States, why is China treated with so much lenience when it consistently ignores rules of safety and legality?

The world barely blinked over the recent melamine-tainted pet-food scandal which killed 8,500 dogs (also sold for use in feed for pigs and chickens) in the United States and caused a massive recall; or to the drug scandal involving cough syrup laced with poisonous diethylene glycol (used in anti-freeze) which had been falsely labelled as less expensive - but fit for human consumption and glycerine used in exported toothpaste, which caused the death of between 100 and 450 Panamanian children..

These incidents are not exceptional. In the first four months of 2007, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors - who are able to check less than one per cent of imports - sent back to China 298 contaminated food shipments; among them dried apples preserved with a cancer-causing chemical, honey with banned antibiotics and mushrooms with illegal pesticides. China has gotten away with flouting food and safety regulations in a way which would not be possible in developed nations.

In May 2007, the Chinese drug administration, when asked to explain why the Taixing Glycerine Factory (which used glycol in the deadly syrup sold in Panama) or the Beijing-based State trading company Fortune Way could not be prosecuted, said that it had no jurisdiction, as the plants were not certified to make medicine.

Chinese success rides on the back of a labour ‘free-for-all’, where anything goes as long as money is made and the people remain passive. It also rides on the back of kow-towing by Western governments which have vested interests in doing business with China and huge corporations that turn a blind eye as long as profit margins continue to increase.

China can get away with what it does because it is aided and abetted by Western governments, business and the buying public. It is, in essence, ‘our creature’ and the more powerful it becomes, as it does by the day, the less power the developed world has to challenge the way business is done by China and in China.

Of course, the problem is not restricted to China – it is found in every developed nation and for all the same sorts of reasons. Our banks and telecommunications companies are sending jobs to India because it is cheaper; businesses are sending their manufacturing offshore to places like Thailand, India and China – because it is cheaper. We , in essence, are taking advantage of the poor wages and working conditions of undeveloped nations. It always has been thus to some degree or another, but in our globalised economy, lowering standards in order to increase profits, will have a bounce-back effect on standards in developed nations as well.

Beyond the practicalities, there is a moral question which must be addressed if the developed world is to have any hope in convincing less developed and less democratic nations that there is a better way of doing things.

Independent MP Bob Such called on the Federal Government to introduce fair trading laws to stop Australian manufacturers being ‘decimated’ by countries which did not pay proper wages or have health, safety or environmental safeguards.

“Why sacrifice our workers and manufacturing capacity on the altar of an unlevel playing field which is anything but fair?” he asked.

Why indeed? More to the point, why betray the hard-won principles of democracy, rule of law and human rights which underpin our modern world and which ensure that Australians, like all those who live in the developed world, have the greatest opportunity to live a healthy, safe and fulfilling life for the sake of greed?

There are investments which keep the ‘bank balance’ on the rise and there are investments which ensure a better world for all those who will come after us. Both sorts of investments need to be balanced and if a choice must be made, then it should err on the side of the latter.

It is a Chinese belief, perhaps one they have forgotten for the moment, that nations need to plan in terms of centuries not decades, for it is only then that a real future is ensured. It is a belief which teaches that sometimes we need to be inconvenienced, perhaps even to suffer a little and to learn patience, in order to work for a better world. That ‘quick fixes’ and even ‘quicker profits’ are not always in our best interests. It is something we need to remember every time we pick up an item and read a label which says: Made in China!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


It may be hard to believe, given the amount of violence in the world, but human beings are not ‘hard-wired’ to kill. They must be ‘trained’ to take the life of another, whether by a system such as the military, or by a culture which ‘teaches’ that killing is acceptable in certain circumstances. The other motivation, and this is experienced at an individual level, is a belief that killing is acceptable because it is necessary in order to ‘save’ a nation, life or honour.

Without these ‘reasons’ or justifications, most human beings, no matter how well trained she or he may be, will be traumatized by the act of killing. Particularly when those being killed are, in the main, civilians or those who could argue they are fighting to free their country from foreign occupation, as in Iraq, or foreign meddling, as in Afghanistan.

Soldiers are no longer ignorant cannon fodder. They are educated and have a capacity to be informed in a way that soldiers in the past did not. It is not hard for a soldier to know that, while the Taliban has been defined as ‘enemy’ in this war in Afghanistan, it is the same Taliban which was previously armed and supported by the United States. Neither is it hard to know that the majority of Iraqis want the Occupation to end and support attacks against Coalition forces - the insurgency is therefore a legitimate resistance against foreign domination. Coalition soldiers may have believed initially that the Iraqis would welcome them with flowers as a liberating force, but they can have no illusion now that they are anything but hated by the people they have invaded.

The ‘rules’ of war therefore are conflicting and confusing and justification for the slaughter being inflicted upon the peoples of both Afghanistan and Iraq is hard to find for anyone of reason who has been brought up on a diet of civilized values: human rights, rule of law, justice and freedom. A soldier will do what he or she has been told to do and, in the beginning, may well believe all that they have been told about their reasons for going to war. But wars have a life of their own and, the longer they go on, the harder it is to deny the truths which stare everyone in the face. Some people have a greater capacity for denial than others, but for many, therein lies the path to madness. These are, in essence, ‘war’s walking dead.’

Which is why it is hardly surprising that Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom are all finding that soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are experiencing exceptionally high levels of post-traumatic stress and suicide. Vietnam had the same sort of impact and for all the same reasons.

So much so that families, war veterans and MP’s have called for an independent inquiry into the mental health of Australian soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Federal Government has acknowledged that two soldiers took their own lives after returning from duty, but some say as many as five have committed suicide and the number can only be expected to rise. So far, 121 soldiers have been discharged for mental illness upon their return to Australia. About two dozen have serious psychological problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Families say the soldiers who commit suicide on their return are the hidden casualties of war.

Private Geffrey Gregg, 25, took his own life seven months ago, after suffering years of psychological trauma following deployment in Afghanistan. In 2002, at the age of 21, he was caught in a fierce fire-fight that left 11 Afghan civilians dead. Several SAS troops involved in the action were disciplined. Gregg was not among them, but on his return home his partner said he was a changed man, suffering nightmares and constantly seeking reassurance that he was a good person. He was discharged as medically unfit in 2004 and diagnosed with PTSD.

The national president of the Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Association, John "Blue" Ryan, said an independent inquiry into deaths in the past three years was the only way to help other soldiers scarred by war. Mr Ryan said veteran support groups believed there could have been up to five suicides among soldiers returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dr Robert Marr, of the Australian Medical Association for the Prevention of War, said it was likely the Vietnam and Iraq wars had greater psychological impact on soldiers than the two world wars, as there was no clear enemy and no front-line.

In the UK, thousands of soldiers have gone absent without leave (AWOL) since 2003 and the Army continues to downplay the gravity of mental problems caused by their tours in Iraq.The UK Ministry of Defence estimates there have been 10,000 AWOL incidents since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and 1,100 servicemen are currently ‘on the run’ from the Army.

Many of those who are absent without leave – a crime punishable by life imprisonment in the UK – say they ran away because the Army refuses support for mental trauma. Others say that army life is not what they expected and does not match the image presented by recruiters.

In the US, the problem is even greater with record numbers of soldiers going AWOL and soaring rates of PTSD being reported.

“When we kill another human being, there's a price to pay,” said Dave Pelkey, a helicopter pilot who was shot down over Vietnam and Cambodia five times; has been divorced five times and who is now counselling soldiers who have served in Iraq. “We try to put a barrier around our heart and our emotions, but there is a price to pay.”

His story was a common one. Vietnam vets share the same sorts of horrendous experiences: memories too graphic to share even with their wives; memories which stay with them, moulding and distorting their character and remaining as powerful decades on as they were at the time.

Stacy Bannerman, the author of “When the War Came Home: The Inside Story of Reservists and the Families They Leave Behind” and an analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus, says US soldiers who have served - or are serving - in Iraq are killing themselves at higher percentages than in any other war where such figures have been tracked. According to a report recently released by the Defense Manpower Data Centre, suicide accounted for over 25 per cent of all non-combatant Army deaths in Iraq in 2006.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is the result of subtle biological changes in the brain chemistry as a response to severe stress, which alters the way the brain stores memories. During a particularly intense episode, the body releases massive amounts of adrenaline and the physiological alterations associated with the intense emotional reaction create memories that disrupt normal life. The markers of post-traumatic stress include nightmares; avoiding reminders of the traumatic event; hyper-arousal, a physiological response to stress that can lead to irritability and restlessness; and drug use and alcohol abuse, says Bannerman.

Among soldiers who develop PTSD, “there was a strong relation between combat experiences, such as being shot at, handling dead bodies, knowing someone who was killed, or killing enemy combatants.”

More than any previous war, she says, the Iraq war is likely to produce the highest number of soldiers suffering from PTSD. There is considerable psychological distress associated with going into a country under the auspices of liberating a people, only to have them rise up against you and it lingers long after the war has ended. Adding to the pressure is that many mental health officials believe that the nature of urban street fighting and insurgent warfare, coupled with heavy reliance on National Guard and Army Reserve troops, will result in higher rates of PTSD among this group of veterans than those in previous conflicts.

Another reason for the escalating mental health challenges is that, while soldiers typically spent one tour of duty in Vietnam, troops are serving two, three and occasionally four rotations in Iraq. An additional challenge is the moral ambiguity of fighting a war without front lines, where the combatants are or are dressed as civilians. Many veterans are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile experiences such as shooting at civilians because they had failed to stop at a checkpoint.

PTSD is an affliction as old as war itself. It was officially recognised in the US as a war-induced psychological ailment in 1980. Before that, it was known by a variety of euphemisms, including shell shock and, perhaps most accurately, after the American Civil War of the 1860s, as ‘soldier's heart’. The American Civil War was another of those conflicts where it was difficult for people to believe in the cause for which they were fighting. Even worse, the ‘enemy’ was at times a relative or a friend. And, contrary to common belief, it was not really a war fought for something as ‘noble’ as ending slavery – that reason came later as the ‘icing’ on top of the economic and political ‘cake’ which was being divided up between opposing sides. It was a ghastly war. All wars are ghastly, but this was particularly so and, like all wars, it involved civilians as well as soldiers. Civilians were targeted, by omission or commission, just as they are today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What does it do to us when we kill and maim unarmed civilians? What does it do to us when we kill and maim small children and mothers with babes in arms? What does it do to us when we lay waste to the land and turn homes to rubble? It does what it has always done – it wounds us in heart and mind. It may wound professional soldiers less than reservists or conscripts, but it wounds all the same.

Some soldiers in all wars will experience mental and emotional distress because of what they experience, but more soldiers, as history records, suffer when they are fighting wars in which they do not believe; in which they cannot find meaning, purpose and justification for the killing and suffering they inflict and the deaths and injuries that they experience. This was seen most clearly in Vietnam veterans and this is the war which has most in common with those being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Iraq war is into its fifth year. Australia has been lucky so far in terms of deaths and injuries, although our troops have not been serving in the most dangerous areas and our numbers are low. At this point, there are more than 3,230 American military fatalities and as many as 650,000 Iraqis. The number of American wounded is around 23,400. The number of Iraqi wounded statistically may run into the millions.

The number of Coalition soldiers, including Australians, who are - or will be - psychologically and emotionally wounded, is not yet fully known. What can be reasonably assumed is that the numbers are already in the tens of thousands and will continue to rise. The price of war is always high; the price of unnecessary, illegal or immoral wars is even higher. The Iraqis and Afghans may see millions dead or maimed, but when the war is over, they will be at peace. The Coalition forces, many of them at least, will not. And they are not the only ones who will suffer, for mental illness impacts upon the whole family.

We should be asking our political leaders for an answer to the question: What is the price of a ruined life? The moral responsibility for any war rests with our Governments. If they make the decision to send us to war, then surely they should be responsible for picking up the pieces - all of them – for as long as it takes and no matter the cost.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The nights are black, the frosts are crisp and the days are bright. We are well into June but far from midwinter and the cold is merely creeping into place. The temperature gets down to zero or below overnight and the frosts are white hard in the morning. But they do not last long. The sun melts the ice quickly and greens the whitening of night before late morning. It is a lovely time of year with intermittent rain, sometimes heavy, sometimes light, mist and fog and crawling cloud and often breathless expanses of clear blue sky.
The days are around 15C, sometimes as low as 11C or as high as 17C but not too cold. It is the wind which chills, when it comes, whispering of the land so far away to our South …. Antarctica. It bites the cheeks to make them flush and numbs the fingers, but only because here, in Australia, we do not really dress for the cold as if we do not quite believe in it. And yet it is cold, colder in a way than northern Europe or North America for there the buildings are heated and always cosy warm while we Australians barely remember to put on warmer clothes as winter takes possession of our days and nights.
Once you have lived with central heating it is hard to live without it. Once you have lived with central heating it is difficult to understand, why, perhaps Tasmania excepted, Australians have not bothered with it in the cooler regions. Perhaps it was because they could. In Europe and North America there was no choice because the winters were so severe and here there is a choice because they are, by comparison, so much milder.
The potatoes in the garden down by the creek are draped in sodden fall across the earth …. The frosts have done them in. Strangely the spinach leaves are untouched. They must be stronger or hold less water than the potato leaves. The nasturtiums have suffered the same fate as the potatoes and no doubt for the same reasons.
The garden grows quiet as leaves drop silently and something akin to an endless sleep, or at least one to last the Winter, subdues all growth. The branches are barer by the day and while for some it is sleep, for others it may well be death due to the long and vicious drought. That is a truth we will know in Spring.
It is lovely to have this change of season, where leaves are offered to the chilled ground and bare-branched integrity is spread against the brilliant green of lawn and paddock. Through the measured arms of skeletal trees the world spreads bright and green and rich with life. The smoke drifts and hovers from the chimney and perfumes the air with eucalypt and pear from logs we have gathered and saved and cut. The fire spits and cracks behind me and the days drift slowly in that way of waiting which is Winter. It is a sombre, settled, sated time when there is room to rest, space to dream and time to reflect. It is the slowness of Winter which allows everything the time to gather strength, and enthusiasm for the rush of Spring and the dreams of Summer.
All is well in the Adelaide Hills where we are now ensconced. The farm is not big, not by real farming standards, only 106 acres, but it is some of the most beautiful land in the world.... rolling green hills which are now lush with grass after a bad drought.

We had some good rains in January which gave us a boost but then in April the season broke and we had torrential downpours…. The creek was raging , from nothing, up to full height which is about three feet and within days the bottom dam (lake) was full and the two top dams were 80percent full. We are now having intermittent rain…downpours and sunshine so the grass is growing as we watch.

There are issues for Australia in terms of water management but we are fortunate where we are because the Adelaide Hills are traditionally a high rainfall area. It’s a lovely time of year here with the leaves turning through gold and red, the hills lush green, and the mornings misty with a touch of frost. We are still having temperatures though of the low to mid twenties during the day so it is very mild and even better for grass growing. But Autumn is the best of seasons in my book anyway because the days are cooler but still mild and the sun still shines through clear blue skies for a lot of the time.

Molly, the new pup, has turned out to be a brilliant cattle dog …. All instinctive …. And is very helpful with the cattle. This is not surprising as a blue heeler/ border collie cross. We are taking her to training lessons soon though. She is a lovely dog, very smart, and really, for a puppy, not much trouble although she has ruined one of my doormats and started on another …. Expensive ones too so I have moved them into the shed for the duration. But, touch wood, there has been no digging holes or trashing garden beds so we cannot complain. Vince the ancient beagle trudges on, literally, as he goes into his probably 17th year but he is still quite active and runs after Greg when he takes the hay out to feed cattle. Although we are in the last weeks of handfeeding cows so Vince will soon get a rest. Well, apart from Molly who drives him crazy at times. But all that youthful enthusiasm would drive any old dog crazy, even a patient beagle!

Peppa the cat without a tail is doing well and seems, for the moment, to have given up killing birds. Perhaps the tail helped in that particular task in ways we do not understand. We did put a bell on here for a time but finally decided we really need to take advantage of her mouse and rat-killing abilities and the place is awash with birds at the best of times so we took it off.

The four black chooks, Millicent, Madeleine, Muriel and Maude are probably four of the happiest chooks in creation …. And healthiest …. I never realized how fluffy chooks really were. I guess most of them are not in our mass produced and less than kind world. I now know the true meaning of ‘bum fluff,’ as they have these little ‘skirts’ of soft feathers which look for all the world like black tutus atop scrawny legs. And they are good egg layers. Four a day is more than enough and the yolks are almost fluorescent…. Yummy and super healthy I am sure. They have fitted into the local menagerie. Molly and Vince ignored them from the start as did Peppa but Morgan’s dog Holly decided they should be dealt with when she first met them although they are a feisty foursome and Holly has given up and now also ignores them.

It is probably the magpies who are most out of sorts with the chickens and when they first arrived could often be seen ‘herding’ them back into the coop when we let them out. Even the magpies have given up although two crows have now taken up residence and so there is a foodfight between magpies and crows which takes precedence over chicken control. Greg feeds the magpies mincemeat and they really become quite tame. They are very intelligent birds and a serious match for the crows. They are all very fat and no doubt over-fed.

We now have plans to get a couple of goats to take care of the blackberry infestation along the creek. We are in the process of fencing off the creek area and will only put a couple in but apparently they love blackberries and should keep themselves busy for quite some time. It’s a weed here and one is meant to control it but we don’t like to use chemicals and anyway, the creek, is part of the Hills water catchment so goats are more eco-friendly. And more cost-effective because even if you haul out the bushes and poison the roots they will come back because in nature’s inimitable way, birds keep eating blackberries and birds keep shitting.

So, all in all, it is satisfyingly busy and life in the Adelaide Hills is sublime. This is such a peaceful part of the world that one feels quite fortunate. The black, silent nights beneath star-filled sky is the bit I think I like best along with misty mornings and sunny afternoons drinking coffee in the garden, with a gaggle of chooks, a couple of dogs, two resident magpies and two recently arrived crows all fighting for any dropped crumbs.

One is reminded that what really matters in life are moments of peace and people. At the end of the day it is the memories which will last into our tomorrows and, if there is a world beyond this one, and I believe there is, into the eternal now!
It is nearly a year since we returned to Australia from Russia and here in one of the world's safest places there is more time to think about perhaps more important things. There is time to ponder the wrongs of the world or the potential wrongs of this world of which there are many. Perhaps there is too much time to ponder but, anyway, I shall continue to do so.


The medical profession is not backward when it comes to issuing warnings about what we should or should not do and never more so than in the case of pregnancy.

The list of “thou-shalt-nots” is much longer than when I had babies in the Sseventies. Most of us were sensible about smoking and drinking while pregnant, but we were not paranoid about the occasional cigarette or glass of wine. and T the main emphasis was on maintaining a nourishing diet and getting plenty of sleep. Needless to say, the scores of babies from those years have all grown into healthy adults without too much trouble, even those whose mothers continued to smoke.

But times have changed and fingers now wag censoriously, not only about tobacco and alcohol, but also about soft cheeses, salami and prepared salads -because of the risk of Listeria bacteria; canned tuna - because of mercury - and freshly- squeezed orange juice - because of Salmonella. Fresh oysters and smoked salmon also seem to be no-no’s for pregnant women these days and heaven forbid that you should dip a baby’s dummy in honey, as I confess I did more than once, because of the threat of botulism.

Needless to say, the mothers of France and Italy have spent centuries surviving the risks of runny cheese, made even riskier by the fact that they use un-pasteurized milk, and smelly sausage and no doubt continue to do so today, even while Australian women are obeying doctor’s orders and pushing away the plate. Not only that, they have been quaffing their glass or two of wine a day without, it seems, any discernible damage to the bodies or minds of their children.

While heavy smoking and/or drinking must represent a risk to babies, in the same way as does that poor diet does, the reality is that the other ‘risks’ are slight. One can understand that, given the litigious nature of today’s society and the ‘nanny’ approach of governments, the medical profession feels obliged to point out any and all potential risks, no matter how small they may be.

Which makes it all the more surprising that one serious risk factor – elective caesarean – is not only not the focus of a censorious finger, but is all too often, supported, by omission or commission, by the medical profession. Is this a case of a double standards, in that elective caesareans are financially profitable both in the here and now and in a variety of possible futures, in a way that camembert
and mettwurst mettwurst are not?

There is no doubt that, while the consumption of soft cheeses and sausage amongst pregnant women in Australia has taken a dramatic dive in recent years, the rate of elective caesareans has gone up to such a degree that Australia has one of the highest rates in the western world. Some 40 per cent of all births in this country are caesareans. and s Some medical experts believe they will soon become the norm, despite the fact that the World Health Organisation considers any rate higher than 15 per cent to be an indicator of “‘inappropriate usage.”’

So why are women who live in fear of soft cheeses opting for major surgery which has risks both for the mother and her unborn child? And where are the warnings informing pregnant women that, not only do caesareans increase the risk of unexplained stillbirth following pregnancy, as stated in a 2003 study in the British medical journal, “The Lancet”; but has the following impacts:

— that aA caesarean affects the placenta's ability to provide optimum levels of oxygen and nutrients to a future baby;
— that Aa caesarean carries with it the risk of life-threatening uterine rupture;
— that Ffollowing a caesarean, women are at greater risk of bleeding, bladder injury, ongoing pelvic pain, wound infection and deep vein thrombosis;
— that Yyour body will still undergo ‘contractions’ to varying degrees, because it continues to do what it believes it needs to do …. but with a painful wound in your belly;
— that Bbreastfeeding and caring for a baby with stitches following surgery is both inconvenient and painful;
— that tThis is major surgery which will scar your uterus and have implications for further pregnancies - only 20 per cent of women in Australia who have a caesarean go on to have a vaginal birth later;
— and that the reality of Aa caesarean is that it is major surgery and your body will be in pain and in shock for weeks after the birth, at a time when all you want to do is enjoy your new baby and a return to normal life?

In the September 2006 issue of “Obstetrics and GynecologyGynaecology”, a group of French researchers found that the rate of maternal death from C-section was three times that of vaginal delivery, due mostly to increased risk of blood clots, infections, and complications from anaesthesia. In addition, the first study to examine risks to babies born via elective ceasarean, published recently in “Birth”, reported that, in 6 six million births, the risk of death to newborns delivered vaginally was 0.62 per thousand 1,000 live births, versus compared with 1.77 for those delivered by elective C-section.

Women who have their first child by caesarean are more likely to have placenta-related problems in their second pregnancy, the research suggests indicates. The risk of a placenta attaching low down in the womb or rupturing increases by almost 50 per cent, data from 5 five million pregnancies shows. Both conditions cause bleeding during pregnancy, the report warned. A low placenta on a scar is a dangerous situation and one of the most frightening in obstetrics. In mothers who had their first baby by caesarean, the risk of placental praevia - a condition where the placenta attaches over or near the internal opening of the cervix - was 47 per cent higher in their second pregnancy than of women who gave birth naturally.

The risk of a second condition, placenta abruption - where the placenta separates from the womb prematurely - was 40 per cent higher in women who had a previous caesarean. The researchers said scarring inside the womb caused by caesareans may affect the attachment of the placenta in future pregnancies, which then has an impact on the ability of the foetus to be nourished.

Study leader Dr Qiuying Yang, of from the University of Ottawa in Canada, said the study was the largest to- date and showed an important link between caesareans and subsequent pregnancy complications.

“More than 1 one per cent of pregnancies with a prior caesarean section had one of these events, which had a 50 per cent increase compared to women without previous caesarean section,” he said.

“This has important implications on the management of these pregnancies. It also introduces new and important evidence in the debate on the risks of caesarean sections ‘on demand’.”

Beyond the negatives associated with caesarean delivery, there are the positives of vaginal birth. Not surprisingly, Mother Nature has good reasons for doing what she does. Labour is important to both mother and baby, because of the hormones which are released . in the process. In addition, as the baby passes through the birth canal, the squeezing removes any fluid from the lungs. This is crucial in newborn babies, where the ability to breathe well impacts upon brain function.

Another plus in Nature’s way is that the baby gets the benefits of its mother’s bacteria as it passes through the birth canal. Normally, these quickly take up residence in the newborn’s gut and provide increased immunity. Caesareans can change or delay beneficial bacteria making their home in the baby’s intestinal tract. and Iit is now believed, following intensive studies, that this is the reason why such babies have a dramatically increased risk of food allergy, some 106 per cent, and infant diarrheadiarrhoea, by 46 per cent. It perhaps also offers some insight into as to why allergies have made such an astronomical rise in Western societiesnations. The current medical view is that our homes are ‘too clean,’ and the Americans have even gone so far as to create a ‘dirt pill’ to give to children. The real answer may well be that there is too much medical intervention in childbirth, in general, and too many caesareans, in particular.

There’s a paradox here which that remains unexplained and which is not in the interests of mother or baby. It is hardly surprising perhaps that the women in this country who are most likely to have a caesarean are first-time mothers aged in their mid-30’s, with private health insurance. An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report shows that caesarean rates are 15.9 per cent for mothers under 20 and that this rate rises to 43.2 per cent for women over 40.

No-one is denying denies that caesareans are life-savers in certain situations, but there is no reason why age isshould be, by necessity, a factor. Like many women of her generation, my mother had her fifth child at 40, in a natural birth. My sister had her first child at 43, and perhaps, unlike many women of her generation, also naturally. Women have been giving birth in their forties for generations. It may be unusual to start having children at 40, as we see today, but there is nothing unusual about giving birth naturally in our forties.

And tThen there is the psychological side of it, where, unsurprisingly, studies show that the self-esteem of first-time mothers is highest for women who have vaginal births.

“Women who had caesarean deliveries were significantly more likely to experience a deteriorationdeterioration in mood and in self-esteem,” said a report in the “AAustralia & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry”. And a fact sheet published by The International Caesarean Awareness Network states that a caesarean can lead to “psychological outcomes such as negative feelings, fear, guilt, anger, and post-partum depression”.

A midwife to whom I spoke said: “Look at it this way - . Wwhen a woman gives birth herself she feels empowered. When a woman gives away that opportunity, or right, she feels disempowered. There’s a difference between having a caesarean because you have no choice and it is being done to save your baby- and choosing to have one for convenience. Caring for your first baby can be scary and the more empowered you have been by the birth experience, the more you will be able to trust that you can do the job. Women who have been disempowered will lack that trust in themselves and that can lead to post-natal depression.”

A recent study by Perth's Telethon Institute for Child Health Research of more than 430,000 births over 20 years found that the rapid increase in caesarean deliveries was instead caused by ‘societal’ factors - including a fear of natural birth and a misunderstanding of the risks of surgery. It shows that the likelihood of a woman having an elective caesarean more than doubled from 1984 to 2003, even after taking into account various medical and demographic factors, including the risks associated with higher maternal age.

The likelihood of an emergency caesarean rose by nearly 90 per cent over the same period, according to the study. by experts from Perth's Telethon Institute for Child Health Research.

Study co-author Professor Fiona Stanley, director of the Telethon Institute, said the findings “suggest there's some social or lifestyle factors that may be influencing women” to ask their obstetricians for a caesarean.

Rising caesarean rates have already sparked alarm in Australia. Last month, NSW Health issued new guidelines to its obstetric staff, stipulating that “maternal request on its own is not an indication for elective caesarean section” and any more specific reasons had to be discussed and recorded.

“If you are going to have something that's expensive, you have to justify it clinically, other than saying mothers just want it because they are 'too posh to push' or that obstetricians may be worried about being sued,” said Prof.essor Stanley, the director of the Telethon Institute.

It’s all a bit too easy to accuse women of being ‘too posh to push’ when the overwhelming majority of them, once they become pregnant, want only what is best for their baby. The other reality is that most people do not challenge doctors over their advice, and never more so than when a woman is pregnant, particularly with a first child and has not only her life to consider, but that of her baby.

As with many other things, like antibiotic use, the blame - it seems - is put on the patient, not the doctor, when logic suggests that generally, people do what their doctors tell them to do, rather than the other way around. Women may well choose to discuss all of their birth options, including caesarean, but I doubt that many would demand a surgical birth if their doctor advised them that it was not in the best interests of either baby or mother and described, in detail, the many disadvantages.
It is an insult to suggest that our soaring caesarean rates are the result of women being selfish and cowardly, when common sense dictates that the person most likely to be ‘calling the shots’ is the doctor. If as much effort was put into warning women about the risks associated with caesareans as goes into warning them about what they eat and drink, I have no doubt that Australia’s caesarean rate would take a dramatic dive. First and foremost, women want what is best for their babies, no matter how inconvenient or difficult it may be for them personally. They also want the information which will enable them to make the decisions about what is best for their babies and - when it comes to caesareans -they are simply not getting it.