Can you be empowered by a normal bodily function?

It is axiomatic among natural childbirth advocates and homebirth advocates that an unmedicated childbirth is an empowering experience. I would like to make three claims about this. First, by definition, it is impossible to be empowered by a normal bodily function. Second, that the use of empowered in this setting bears no relationship to the actual meaning of the word, and third, that “empowered” is simply a code word for “better than other women”.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, empower means:

To invest with power, especially legal power or official authority. See Synonyms at authorize. Usage Note: Although it is a contemporary buzzword, the word empower is not new, having arisen in the mid-17th century with the legalistic meaning “to invest with authority, authorize.” Shortly thereafter it began to be used with an infinitive in a more general way meaning “to enable or permit.” Both of these uses survive today but have been overpowered by the word’s use in politics and pop psychology… The Usage Panel has some misgivings about this recent broadening of usage… and frown[s] on … psychological empowering because it resonates of the self-help movement, which is notorious for trendy coinages.

So there are a variety of accepted usages for the word “empowered” all relating to investing an individual with power or authority. Its pop psychology usage is even more popular; in that setting, it means to be in control of one’s destiny.

Regardless of which usage is employed, it is simply not possible to be “empowered” by a normal bodily function. Normal bodily function extends to all people indiscriminately. It has nothing to do with whether those people have either power or authority. When used outside the realm of childbirth, this is quite obvious. Could people be empowered by digesting their own food? No. Are women empowered by enduring painful menstrual cramps without medication? No. Are people who don’t need glasses more empowered than people who do? Certainly not.

Similarly, unmedicated childbirth is the default mode. Virtually every mother who ever lived had unmedicated childbirth (or died trying), and most women around the world have unmedicated childbirth each and every day. Does this make them more powerful than they would be otherwise? Of course not. By the same token, it is not going to make Western, white, relatively well off, and relatively well educated women any more powerful, regardless of what they would like to pretend.

So what do “natural” childbirth advocates mean when they claim that unmedicated childbirth is “empowering”? What they mean is that it makes them feel better about themselves in relation to their peers. The desire for unmedicated childbirth is a fad, no different than the fad for fancy handbags, or fast cars. Owning a fancy handbag or a fast car does not make one person superior to another, except for those who believe in the value of the fad object. There is nothing intrinsically better about fancy handbags, and there is nothing intrinsically better about unmedicated childbirth. However, for those who move in a particular milieu, a fancy handbag is a sign of status. For those in the “natural” childbirth community, being able to boast about an unmedicated childbirth is a sign of status.

Women who proclaim unmedicated childbirth to be “empowering” are slaves to the ideology of the group, not independent actors taking control of their own lives. No one can be empowered by a normal bodily function that is the default mode. They simply mistake their unmerited feelings of superiority for empowerment.

This piece first appeared on Homebirth Debate in May 2008.