Monday, June 28, 2010

Feminism and Birth

The term "feminism" gets a bad rap. For this post, I'm not going to go into a full analysis of who is a feminist and who isn't, the stereotypical feminists versus what an actual feminist probably looks like, what a feminist issue is and what isn't. For now, I'm just going to say that I think that feminism is about women's rights and freedom to choose what is right for them.

In the 1920's, the Feminist way to give birth was Twilight Sleep, with the use of scopalamine.

"Women were still being told that the pain of childbirth was the Curse of Eve and that it was because of Eve's sin in the Garden of Eden that women had to suffer during childbirth.
So you can imagine how the modern liberated feminist attitude during the time would be
I certainly don't have to suffer and that if there are drugs around that can keep me from having to suffer I'm going to go find those drugs because 'I'm a modern woman.'
Women thought that it took away pain during childbirth but it doesn't it actually just takes away your memory of the experience." - Robbie Davis-Floyd, The Business of Being Born

Today, most women would agree that Twilight Sleep was a terrible time in the history of childbirth. However, it would not be strange to find that many women think that any drug or medical procedure that can skip the suffering is the choice of a liberated woman. They want to skip the "messy" business of being labor, pick their delivery dates, have a cesarean section. Independent women have elective C-sections!

But is this really the feminist choice?

Gina, The Feminist Breeder puts it best:

"So many young women today think that drugged-up births and cesareans are the “feminist” choice, and that labor pains are oppressive or patriarchal in nature.  I understand… I really do.  I once was that girl.  I thought anything that could disconnect me from my biology meant freedom... I didn’t necessarily want a cesarean (I’m scared of surgery) but when I became pregnant, I had blind faith that the obstetrician I hired could easily and painlessly remove the parasite I was growing in my womb with a nice epidural cocktail and some forceps.  Simple, right?

Of course I had no education whatsoever about epidurals or forceps or cesareans, and how much damage they could do to a woman’s body.  I just assumed that if the technology existed, then they must have perfected it, and if it could keep me from feeling a contraction then by golly, I had to get me some of that."

This is a common attitude of women who have never given birth before. Most women know very little about pregnancy and birth before it happens to them. Most women, for the first pregnancies especially, think that their obstetrician will tell them everything they need to know and always have their best interests at heart. They think that, just as Gina says, "they must have perfect it" all by now, and women in movies are always getting epidurals, c-sections, etc, and the technology surrounding birth is the best way.

I try, in my own way, through this blog, my work as a doula, and conversations with friends, to spread the idea of what I think the REAL feminist way to give birth is: To Be Informed! It is liberating to be informed. Be knowledgeable of all your options before birth, during birth, during emergencies, and after birth. That way you understand the pros and cons, the benefits and risks, of every single care provider, procedure, piece of equipment, and treatment. That way you'll make an informed choice and you'll know whats really best for your body and your life.

Midwife Miriam writes on Birth Activist:

"“Why would you suffer? They have pain killers for that.” Or “you have the right to sign up for a c-section and get it over with, there is no need to suffer.” were the phrases I encountered the most. At that moment I realized that while the women’s movement did so much to further our rights in the workplace and controversial reproductive rights it had left behind an essential part of being a woman the reproductive right to birth as we saw fit. But wait… we can schedule our c-section, we are in control. Wrong sister! 

We as women have forgotten what we are. Beautiful powerful creatures who’s bodies were created with an ability that no man has, the ability to grow and birth a human being.
The male dominated medical field is selling us a bag of goods, and I am not buying it."

Both Miriam and Gina make impassioned pleas for feminists and young people of the women's movement to fight for choices in birth and women's rights. They especially ask that women stop and think about if a c-section is really what they want... Or if its even a choice rather than whats being pushed upon us all.

Gina writes,

"Independent women need to be aware of the real price of trying to buy the “perfect, painless” birth experience from surgeons, and think about ways to change the system for the betterment of all women and babies. 

Last year I gave a 10-minute talk in an advanced public speaking course on this very topic.  When I finished, one young woman raised her hand and said,
“Wow, I never knew any of this.  I always figured I’d sign up for a c-section the minute I got pregnant, but you’ve really got me thinking.”
And that’s all I hope for.  I want more young feminists to ask “Are we taking control over our own bodies, or are we really just unwittingly giving all the control away and labeling that a choice?” and “When I enter my birth environment, am I sure I’ll be treated with respect, or are the residents joking that my desires for an autonomous birth just bought me a ticket to the OR?” If it’s the latter, then it’s time to demand better, and to keep demanding it, until our maternal and infant mortality rates reflect the amount of money women are paying into our maternity care system."

Miriam notes,

"If we have the right to choose a surgical date, then why is it illegal in 25 states to choose a certified midwife to have a homebirth? If I can choose my child’s birth date, why can it only be Monday though Thursday? Why? Because we are being led in a direction under the guise of it being our choice.
I look at some of the most powerful women’s rights groups in our country and shake my head and fist at them.  While the rally to defend our right to terminate a pregnancy they stay quiet on our right to not be forced into surgical birth.  Where is N.O.W. when in Miami-Dade county 51% of humans are being born via surgery.  Why is there no out cry for the illegal “ban on VBACs” that hospitals are claiming to have?  Why is choosing a vaginal birth after a cesarean (which is encouraged by ACOG) a crime that can be reported to the Department of Children and Families? Why are women having court ordered c-sections? Why? Why? WHY?

The women’s rights movement forgot all about birth.  To so many of us who CHOOSE to have children, it has been or will be a pivotal event in our lives. We have all kinds of choices to make about our bodies, I just hope that we tell our daughters that they have the right to make them, especially when it comes to birth."

The rights of a pregnant woman, the rights of a birthing woman, the rights of a breastfeeding woman are important feminist issues. A large percentage of women on this Earth are going to become pregnant and give birth at some point in their lives. Birth is absolutely a women's rights issue. I applaud the members of the women's movement who are fighting for our birth rights.


  1. Several points I would like to make as a young feminist myself.

    1. I am very educated about childbirth and all the pros and cons of the various methods of delivering a baby. I know that natural birth has benefits and guess what? I STILL don't want to do it. If and when I ever have children I will make a perfectly informed decision to ideally have a planned cesarean, but at the very least an epidural.
    I don't think the obstetrician knows best- in fact, I argue more with doctors than anyone else you probably know. There are many aspects of obstetrics that I disagree with such as the use of outdated and dangerous procedures like forceps. I have never trusted a doctor blindly and I never will. This choice is not about handing control to a doctor, it is simply about giving birth in a way that I feel most comfortable with. And I will say very firmly that it is my right to do that.

    However, as someone who would only plan on 1-2 children with a gap of at least 2 years in between, i think that a planned c-section at 39-40 weeks of gestation is what I want.

    I resent feminists who patronise me and assume that this isn't an educated choice. I object to a movement that has a mantra of "my body, my choice" and then refuses to support my right to give birth how I see fit.

    2. I absolutely agree that women should have the right to homebirth and midwife led care as well. Unfortunately, you have made an incorrect assumption that women have the right to choose a surgical date for a c-section and doctors will just agree. As someone who has always known that I want a planned c-section, I have to say that it is a major challenge to find a willing provider. Contrary to your assumption, women do NOT yet have the right to choose a c-section.

    3. There are women who have a condition called tokophobia which is a pathological fear of vaginal birth. It is often caused by rape and sexual abuse and is a way in which the PTSD can manifest itself. There are many, many tokophobic women all over the world who are being forced to give birth vaginally against their will. Can you for a second stop and acknowledge how violated and helpless they must feel? If you truly are a feminist, you will fight as passionately for their rights over their bodies.

    4. There are also women who don't want to bear the pain of natural childbirth. They want the epidural. And yet, many of them are denied the epidural by their midwives or doctors. Why don't you also fight for their rights? Or do you only fight for women who make the choices you personally agree with?

    I fully support any woman choosing natural birth of her own free will. But forcing it on a woman and denying pain relief to a woman who has requested it is misogyny, not feminism.

  2. YES, a c-section has risks and they are serious. However, a vaginal birth has risks as well and those don't get talked about as often.

    It is a woman's choice to decide how she wants to give birth- those choices might be home births, VBACs or water births. However, they may also be elective c-sections and to say that the other choices are valid but this one is not is anti-feminism of the worst kind.

    It is patronising of you to assume that women who request c-sections are uninformed or illiterate.
    We are adequately informed and we know what we are asking for. It's just that our perception of risk and our preferences are very different from yours- that doesn't make us wrong and you right.

    Saying that women who choose c-sections can't be feminists is as bad as saying that women who are SAHMs can't be feminists.

    Feminism is about choices- even the ones you disagree with.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...