Natural childbirth is like anorexia, and neither is feminist

Consider this portrayal of the online natural childbirth community:

Natural childbirth website and blogs constitute is an online community consisting of a number of informational and personal webpages. They offer information and advice on how to achieve a natural birth including advice on nutrition strategies, natural remedies, affirmations and ways of thinking that help maintain commitment to natural childbirth in the face of the actual pain of labor. They also provide access to a range of birth stories used to inspire commitment to NCB. As a social movement, NCB employs a range of inter-textual strategies of narration to express its political concerns – from personalized webpages and blogs, to petitions, and videos. In these ways, NCB occupies a complex boundary between commentary and practice, it is both a meta-discourse and a lived phenomenon.

It seems fairly accurate to me. However, these words were not originally written about NCB. They are actually a paraphrased description of pro-anorexia websites.

I was inspired to examine the similarities between the NCB and pro-anorexia movements because of the strikingly similar rhetoric of empowerment. In both cases, believers derive a sense of empowerment through a natural body function. In the case of the pro-anorexia community purported empowerment comes from resisting the natural urge to eat in response to need. In the case of the NCB community purported empowerment comes from resisting the natural urge to seek pain relief in response to severe pain. The key difference, of course, is that the pro-anorexia community is viewed with horror and concern, while the NCB community receives a great deal of respect in certain quarters.

I can imagine the protests from the NCB community against this unflattering parallel. I suspect they would claim that NCB is about following natural urges, not denying them, but even the most cursory consideration will reveal that claim to be false. The key component of NCB is not so called “unhindered” birth; the sine qua non of NCB is the refusal to accept pain relief when it is available. Hence there is no praise for women who give birth “unhindered” because they have no access to healthcare and there is no praise for women who endure unmedicated childbirth because they arrive at the hospital too late for an epidural or when there is no anesthesiologist. Since women who don’t have access to pain relief cannot refuse it, they are not eligible to be empowered by NCB.

Of course, we understand that no one can actually be empowered by refusing to eat while barraged (consciously or unconsciously) by hunger. Any sense of empowerment is purely illusory; strikingly, it is a desperate attempt by the powerless who are reduced to torturing themselves (through hunger) in order to have control of something. Similarly, any sense of empowerment through NCB is also purely illusory and also represents an attempt by the powerless who are reduced to tortunring themselves (with pain) in order to have control over something.

It is not an accident that throughout history, up to the present day, pain in childbirth has been viewed as women’s punishment and aggressively promoted by those men believed that women should remain powerless or those women who are powerless.

It is not a coincidence that Grantly Dick-Read, the father of NCB, was a sexist who opposed any attempt of women to seek economic, legal or educational power. Similarly, it is not a coincidence that the primary American exponent of NCB is Ina May Gaskin, a woman who lives in a cult run by her husband, a cult leader who exercises the same level of control over his wife as over his other followers. (Many people do not realize that The Farm is a commune for a cult, not a refuge for NCB believers.) Moreover, it is not a coincidence that one of the primary goals of first wave feminists was widespread access to pain relief in labor. They recognized that true empowerment of women could be achieved only when women have the ability to control reproduction (including childbirth pain), not through encouraging women to be slaves to reproductive biology.

Claiming that empowerment can be found through a bodily function is a cri de coeur of those believe themselves to be throughly powerless. It is a way to find meaning in their powerlessness, controlling the only thing they believe they are entitled to control, forcing themselves to face pain that eveyone else would “naturally” avoid.

Claiming that NCB is feminist makes no more sense than claiming that anorexia is feminist. Women torturing themselves (whether by refusing food or refusing pain relief) is the heartrending act of someone who secretly believes herself to be powerless, not someone who is empowered.