It is both sad and ironic that the natural childbirth movement, which is supposed to empower women, has ended up disempowering them. Organizations like Human Rights in Childbirth and the Orgasmic Birth movement imagine that they are liberating women to experience the fullness of natural birth. In truth, they are imprisoning women in a view of birth that is in its own way every bit as constraining and unnatural as the medical model of birth.
Psychologist Helena Vissing addresses this irony in the chapter A perfect birth; The Birth Rights Movement and the idealization of birth in the new book A Womb of Her Own; Women’s Struggle for Sexual and Reproductive Autonomy. The chapter is dense with the language of psychoanalysis, but is worthwhile reading in full nonetheless.
The birth rights movement has replaced one oppressive model of birth with another equally oppressive model: the idealization of birth.
Vissing starts with an analysis of what she terms the “birth rights movement.”
… In the Birth Rights Movement, birth is seen as a decisive moment in a woman’s life and is viewed as having crucial impact on the baby and the attachment process. Mainstream obstetrics and hospital birth practices are fiercely criticized and understood as oppressive, profit-oriented, and inhumane.
Sadly, while the birth rights movement has empowered some women, it has disempowered many more. How?
I assert that the idealization of birth is an illusory solution …. On the individual level, it serves to protect against anxieties about the body. On a cultural level, this defense fuels the ideological fight. When the rightness of birth choices is debated in a heated atmosphere, it happens at the expense of maternal subjectivity and emotional integration. Mothers’ subjective experiences of their reproductive rights are used as testimonies in current discourses on birth rights and thereby become underpinnings in an ideological debate…
Simply put, in its insistence on idealizing childbirth, the birth rights movement ignores the experiences of a substantial proportion, perhaps the majority, of women. And it doesn’t merely ignore them, it actively derides them.
… [T]he Birth Rights Movement may be reproducing the oppressing tendencies it sets out to fight.
The primary problem is that the birth rights movement replaces what it views as the faulty model of “industrialized” labor with the equally faulty model of idealized labor.
I suggest that the idealization is fueled mainly by two elements of the Birth Rights Movement’s philosophy: bio-essentialism … and the use of (maternal) subjective accounts…
Vissing articulates the fundamental principles of natural childbirth:
The term “natural” is widely used in the Birth Rights Movement, coined in the term “natural childbirth” by Grantly Dick-Read. In the idea of “normal” or “natural” birth, the birth process is seen as an inherently natural biological, psychological, and potentially also spiritual process, that, if left undisturbed, will unfold itself. Natural childbirth proponents have argued that the unnecessary or questionable interventions, like excessive fetal monitoring and induction that can lead to a cascade of interventions, are disturbing to the natural process of birth.
This idealized view of birth has nothing to do with the reality of birth:
What is understood as the “natural” and “normal” here is quite far from the realities of general childbirth practices. Using the terms “normal” and “natural” create an implicit judgment of women who need or chose to use medical technology and interventions in birth.
Birth stories are used to reinforce this unnatural view of childbirth.
The challenge of asserting maternal subjectivity becomes further problematic when there is idealization at play, as it is namely the idealization of the maternal that makes it hard to connect with the reality of the mother subject (Benjamin, 1988; Parker, 1995). I therefore find it concerning to see mothers’ subjective experiences widely used in literature of an ideological nature. Mothers’ subjective experiences risk getting lost in the ideological discourse because they are fitted into a specific narrative and used as underpinnings. With that we lose the voice of the individual mother’s intrapsychic and complex experience.
How does this hurt women?
In the idealization of birth, the negative aspects are split off and understood explicitly as the result of an unhealthy and/or abusive obstetric system and implicitly as a woman’s failure to assert and empower herself. In the Orgasmic Birth narrative, we are offered the fantasy that childbirth and motherhood without any boundary pressure is possible. From feminist psychoanalytic perspectives, this has dire consequences for maternal subjectivity. A woman will have a hard time expressing ambivalence and anxieties in a philosophy that understands negative feelings as symptoms of an oppressing system that should be resisted. A childbirth philosophy that places responsibility on the mother, whether directly or indirectly, as in the exaggerated focus on a woman’s potential control over the birth, is concerning.
In promoting an idealization of birth, in rejecting the real experiences of the majority of women, in pretending that those who don’t experience an idealized birth have themselves to blame, and in refusing to acknowledge that different women have different views and values, the birth rights movement has become everything is claimed to despise in the medical system. They have merely replaced the patriarchy with the matriarchy and used their power to oppress rather than to liberate.