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Playing the Dead Baby Card

The lengths to which a woman will go to protect an unborn child have been well documented by the media over the years. In 2000, having experienced the death of her last child during birth, Inés Ramírez Pérez, a peasant living in rural Mexico and far from medical assistance, performed a successful Caesarean section on herself in order to save her baby. During the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, approximately 1,700 pregnant women fled the scene, some running miles while heavily pregnant (one with twins), bent on ensuring their unborn baby’s survival through their own.
Our ability to achieve seemingly superhuman feats can be attributed to one simple yet powerful emotion – fear. Flooded with adrenaline we can do things we never believed we could or would, in the name of saving someone we love. As such, fear can be a useful emotion. It can save lives. However there is a downside to the power which fear can deliver – it can be used against us. 
What happens when a potentially catastrophic threat is presented to a labouring woman? However staunch her beliefs or desires in relation to birth, when presented with the possibility that her long awaited baby may die without immediate assistance, the defence mechanism generated by fear can kick in and result in a birth far from what she hoped. 
But what of it? If her baby was at risk of death, surely any birth that delivers her child alive is worth it, no matter the trauma. But what if her baby was never at risk at all and the prophecy of potential doom delivered was in fact a thinly veiled strategy to assert power over the woman by inciting fear?
It’s called ‘playing the dead baby card’ – the act by medical professionals of claiming to a labouring woman that she should submit to this or that intervene in order to protect her baby from death. The belief this practice exists is not new. Women have claimed in the blogsphere for many years now that they have been the victim of the dead baby card. Debunked by the medical profession, medicos have claimed these women are simply crying foul after the fact, citing healthy living babies as evidence that whatever interventions were employed have produced the desired outcome. 
However a recent study has provided the first solid evidence that this despicable practice indeed exists. This evidence was found by Wendy Hall and her fellow researchers while conducting research into how Canadian pregnant women and care providers manage birth in a highly medicalised and risk-adverse culture of childbirth. Care providers interviewed for this research commented on the use of phrases such as ‘You don’t what your baby to die do you?’ when medicos wished to perform an unnecessary intervention which the labouring woman did not desire. 
For some it might be hard to believe that a comment such as this would truly disarm a woman if her beliefs in what she wanted were strong. But we must not overlook the vulnerability of labouring women, or the power of fear. Surging with altered hormonal responses, experiencing exhaustion and pain, and adrift in a state of altered consciousness, the power wielded by fear is even stronger. As a result, without advocates who have the knowledge and confidence to intervene, women can find themselves silenced into submission by fear mongering medicos seeking to control birth rather than facilitate it.
However, we must keep in mind that sometimes intervention IS necessary to save an infant, and there are many bereaved parents who would make impassioned pleas to those who might consider resisting medical assistance. So how then do you pick the medico crying wolf from the one who has perceived a real threat from which s/he seeks to protect your baby? 
The answer lies in perhaps one of the simplest, yet most difficult questions to ask in these circumstances – ‘Why is it necessary?’ As hard as it may seem, remaining calm and seeking a straightforward account of the rationale behind the recommended course of intervention is really the only way to be certain that it is required. Naturally this will be made easier if a woman has with her a knowledgeable advocate who can keep a calm head in a crisis (real or not). Armed with the facts, women can then make an informed decision as to whether disturbing the intricate and sophisticated physiology of childbirth is truly warranted.


  1. Hall, WA, Tomkinson, J & Tomkinson, MCK (2011) Canadian Care Providers' and Pregnant Women's Approaches to Managing Birth: Minimizing Risk While Maximizing Integrity Qualitative Health Research DOI: 10.1177/1049732311424292 Published online 22 September 2011
  2. Dagustun, J (2012) Beware the Dead Baby Card... AIMS Journal, 2012, Vol 24, No 3 Published online 31 January 2013


5 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.

Cornelia Slotiuk
Apr 8, 2013 8:10am [ 1 ]

It is terribly sad but, in my last 17 years as a birth doula in Canada, I would say this is the norm rather than the exception... Especially when a woman ask questions, or requests more information/informed consent, many Dr.'s will coerce her cooperation by playing the 'dead baby' card. And even though the woman may be really well informed and sure of the evidence, most often she will give in... After the c-section (for which the card is played most often) it is doubly sad to hear the new mom defend her acquiescence by repeating that the 'baby would have died' if the intervention hadn't happened.

Apr 11, 2013 5:22pm [ 2 ]

One of the hardest parts of having a VBAC after a traumatic first labour at the hands of some truly incompetent and uncaring health professionals, was being told in graphic terms that my baby could die as a result of my choice to have a VBAC, to stay sure in myself was one thing, but also to at the same time still place my trust and my baby's welfare in the hospital system a second time.

When I was told my baby may have been having some issues with her heart rate, after 60 hours in labour, I know in that moment I'd still laid down and let them slice me open a second time to save my baby. Fortunately it didn't come to that and I did get my empowering VBAC.

But Birth Trauma is so complex, because almost everything that happened with my first I agreed to, or I complied to, "to save my baby", but he was only ever at risk because he was put at risk by the decisions THEY made for me. So while one person could say "well you consented" on the other hand as far as I'm concerned I had no choice - because I wasn't given correct information in a timely manner. And by the time it was apparent that they'd made the wrong choices for me, the s* had hit the fan and the time to talk about options had passed.

Apr 16, 2013 10:59am [ 3 ]

My OB pulled out the dead baby card -along with the "low amniotic fluid" card (even though it was within normal range)- at my 41 week appt. She was desperate to deliver my vbac baby via c section. I had already canceled 1 c/s she insisted on putting on the calendar for 40 weeks 5 days, and put up with her trying to scare me into a cs based on my baby measuring big on a late u/s.

The dead baby card and the low fluid lie caused me to fire that b**ch. I switched to a new ob that afternoon, went into labor 2 days later.

Aug 4, 2013 1:21am [ 4 ]

I found it hard to believe that anyone associated with childbirth, in terms of empowering women, would actually use the words "dead baby card". Then I googled it and found a number of articles including this one.

You do realize that every 20 minutes in the US, a baby is born still? That one in four pregnancies end in loss?

For those of us who have lost babies this term is exceptionally insulting. My daughter is not a "card" used to manipulate someone into a course of action against their will.She was a human being.

Please try to think a little before using this term, and maybe find a better way to phrase your title.

Yvette Barton
May 25, 2014 2:27pm [ 5 ]

Sarah, of course your baby was a human being, and a beautiful and unique one whose loss is an utter tragedy.

This article though is intended to highlight how the fear of such a horrifying result can be used as a weapon against women whose babies are actually in no evident danger.

This can result in unnecessary interventions which can create negative consequences in themselves and also result in a very traumatic birth experience. This can leave women traumatised and feeling violated and betrayed long after the physical scars have healed, as well as leading to postnatal depression.

It is for those women, failed by the medical system which was supposed to protect them, for which this article is intended.

I have lost babies myself and I don't find the term insulting but rather hideous. But it is the term used by some unscrupulous medicos and these types of practices are important to bring to light and discuss if they are to be stopped.

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