Natural childbirth and victimhood

Word VICTIM isolated on black background

The most over-used word in natural childbirth discourse is “empowerment.” But an equally important concept, one that is rarely spoken aloud but is central to natural childbirth advocacy, is victimization. To a greater or less extent, natural childbirth advocates take it for granted that they are victims … of men, of doctors (almost always portrayed as men), of other women, and just about everyone else in the universe.

They are victims, dammit, and that’s why they are traumatized. And anyone who questions or rejects their exalted victim status is promptly accused of re-victimizing them.

The celebration of their “victimization” serves several important roles in the natural childbirth cosmology. First, and foremost, it guarantees moral superiority. As Sommer and Baumeister explain in the book The human quest for meaning

… [C]laiming the victim status provides a sort of moral immunity. The victim role carries with it the advantage of receiving sympathy from others and thereby prevents [one’s own behavior] from impugning one’s character…

In the world of natural childbirth, being a victim means never having to say you’re sorry, even when your behavior is obnoxious and disrespectful.

Second, the insistence on “victimization” serves to simplify the world by creating a false dichotomy. For natural childbirth advocates, women giving birth are either empowered or victimized. Not only is there no middle ground, but the possibility that women might feel neither empowered nor victimized is not even recognized.

Freud purportedly said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” That aphorism applies to the way that most women view childbirth. Giving birth is just the process whereby a child emerges from inside the mother. It has no meaning beyond that and certainly does not have anything to do with the way the mother views her agency within the world at large. In contrast, in NCB advocacy, the actual birth of a child is secondary to the mother’s feelings about her performance during that birth.

Third, the insistence on “victimization” presupposes a sexist, retrograde view of women. Only men are doctors and scientific knowledge and technology are inherently male. In the world of natural childbirth, there are no women doctors or scientists. Science is “too hard” for mere women and since they can’t be expected to know or understand science, they are free to reject it. Women must glorify the functions of their bodies because they have no achievements of their intellects.

This belief has its highest expression in homebirth advocacy. Medical school? Too hard. Midwifery master’s degree? Too hard. College? Too hard. Solution? Give yourself a pretend “degree” to masquerade as a professional because meeting real professional requirements is too hard.

Who has convinced natural childbirth advocates that they are victims? Strangely enough, it is male doctors, the exact same people who have purportedly victimized them. From Grantly Dick-Read, the father of natural childbirth, who believed implicitly in the inferiority of women, through Bradley and Lamaze, right down to Odent (who fears that viewing a wife giving birth will render a man impotent) the leading exponents of women’s victimology are men who view women as capable of being nothing more than victims.

This faux sense of victimization has led natural childbirth advocates to create faux “empowerment.” In the world of natural childbirth advocacy, you can be “empowered” by being obnoxious and disrespectful to healthcare professionals, and no one can hold you to account because you are a “victim.” You can be empowered by pretending that reading books written by laypeople makes you “educated.” You can be empowered by ignoring medical advice. And, with homebirth, you can be empowered by hiding from anyone and anything that might not agree with your assessment that your ignorance, defiance and denial mark you as “educated.”

When you are victim, the fact anyone others don’t agree with you, or validate your feelings of victimization, is viewed as a form of re-victimization. Doctor thinks he knows more about obstetrics than you? He’s victimizing you with his technocratic hegemony. Nurse asks you if you would like an epidural? She’s victimizing you by attempting to destroy your opportunity to be empowered. Other women bottle feed? They are victimizing you by refusing to validate your decision to breastfeed.

Victimization is central to natural childbirth advocacy. Indeed natural childbirth advocacy cannot exist without encouraging and validating victimization.


Adapted from a piece that first appeared in April 2011.