Medicalized birth is a feminist triumph!

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Childbirth is a reproductive rights issue.

Every woman deserves access to high quality obstetric care, and every woman deserves access to state of the art pain relief. That’s because medicalizing birth is a feminist triumph and all women should be able to share in its benefits.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”A possible death sentence came with every pregnancy.”[/pullquote]

Childbirth, in every time, place and culture, is a leading cause of death of young women and the leading cause of death of babies. As historian Judith Walzer Leavitt has noted in Under the Shadow of Maternity: American Women’s Responses to Death and Debility Fears in Nineteenth-Century Childbirth, until the last 100 years:

A possible death sentence came with every pregnancy.

Visit any cemetery, from any century, in any country, and you will find the gravestones of the countless young women who died in childbirth, many after days of horrific agony.

Maternity, the creation of new life, carried with it the ever-present possibility of death. The shadow that followed women through life was the fear of the ultimate physical risk of bearing children. Young women perceived that their bodies, even when healthy and vigorous, could yield up a dead infant or could carry the seeds of their own destruction… Nine months’ gestation could mean nine months to prepare for death.

The very real possibility of death during childbirth shaped women’s lives and relationships:

Perhaps more valuable to our understanding of the reality of maternal death is the observation that most women seemed to know or know of other women who had died in childbirth. One woman, for example, wrote that her friend “died as she has expected to” as a result of childbirth as had six other of their childhood friends. Early in the twentieth century approximately 1 mother died for each 154 live births. If women delivered, let us estimate, an average of five live babies, these statistics can mean that over their reproductive years, one of every thirty women might be expected to die in childbirth. In another early-twentieth century calculation, one of every seventeen men claimed they had a mother or sister who had died as the immediate results of childbirth.

Medicalizing childbirth changed that. Now no woman with access to medicalized birth expects to die during pregnancy.

But living through the birth was only the first hurdle for many women. Some sustained injuries that affected them for the rest of their lives:

In the past, the shadow of maternity extended beyond the possibility and fear of death. Women knew that if procreation did not kill them or their babies, it could maim them for life. Postpartum gynecological problems – some great enough to force women to bed for the rest of their lives, others causing milder disabilities – hounded the women who did not succumb to their labor and delivery. For some women, the fears of future debility were more disturbing than fears of death. Vesicovaginal and rectovaginal fistulas .., which brought incontinence and constant irritation to sufferers; unsutured perineal tears of lesser degree, which may have caused significant daily discomforts; major infections; and general weakness and failure to return to prepregnant physical vigor threatened young women in the prime of life.

Medicalizing childbirth changed that. Now no woman with access to medicalized birth expects to become permanently incontinent of urine and feces as a result of childbirth.

Women viewed childbirth not as the empowering fantasy so beloved of midwives and natural childbirth advocates, but as a specter of unremitting agony:

Apart from their concern about resulting death and physical debility, women feared pain and suffering during the confinement itself. They worried about how they would bear up under the pain and stress, how long the confinement might last, and whether trusted people would accompany them through the ordeal. The short hours between being a pregnant woman and becoming a mother seemed, in anticipation, to be interminably long, and they occupied the thoughts and defined the worries of multitudes of women. Women’s descriptions of their confinement experiences foretold the horrors of the ordeal.

The voices of these women have the power to move us profoundly more than one hundred years later:

Josephine Preston Peabody wrote in her diary of the “most terrible day of [her] life,” when she delivered her firstborn, the “almost inconceivable agony” she lived through during her “day-long battle with a thousand tortures and thunders and ruins.” Her second confinement brought “great bodily suffering,” and her third, “the nethermost hell of bodily pain and mental blankness. . . . The will to live had been massacred out of me, and I couldn’t see why I had to. Another woman remembered “stark terror was what I felt most.”

“Between oceans of pain,” wrote one woman of her third birth in 1885, “there stretched continents of fear; fear of death and dread of suffering beyond bearing.” Surviving a childbirth did not allow women to forget its horrors. Lillie M. Jackson, recalling her 1905 confinement, wrote: “While carrying my baby, I was so miserable… I went down to death’s door to bring my son into the world, and I’ve never forgotten. Some folks say one forgets, and can have them right over again, but today I’ve not forgotten, and that baby is 36 years old.” Too many women shared with Hallie Nelson her feelings upon her first birth: “I began to look forward to the event with dread-if not actual horror.” Even after Nelson’s successful birth, she “did not forget those awful hours spent in labor…”

Medicalizing childbirth changed that. Now no woman with access to medicalized birth expects to suffer severe, unremitting pain from the beginning of labor to the end. She can request and receive an epidural and simply rest and sleep through hours of contractions.

Indeed, so confident of excellent pain relief are women who have access to medicalized childbirth that some women actually think they’ve “achieved” something by refusing it.

One of the great deceptions of contemporary midwifery involves midwives fooling themselves and others that the philosophy of natural childbirth reverts back to unmedicalized birth. Nothing could be further from the truth. Natural childbirth is a philosophy of privilege, specifically the privilege of having easy access to medicalized childbirth. An “unmedicalized” birth can only be safe when embedded firmly within a society that provides unlimited access to obstetricians to rescue women from their own folly.

A midwife without an obstetrician is better than nothing at preventing death in certain limited circumstances, but virtually useless when it comes to saving lives in most emergencies. Without the ability to perform a C-section, midwives, like their ancient counterparts, are helpless in the face of everything from life threatening crises to simple failures of the baby to fit through the maternal pelvis. Without the ability to end a protracted labor by means of forceps or C-section, midwives are helpless to prevent obstetric fistula. Without the ability to offer epidurals, midwives are reduced to pretending that ineffective measures are effective, or, bizarrely, that labor pain is beneficial.

Childbirth is a reproductive rights issue.

Every woman deserves access to high quality obstetric care, and every woman deserves access to state of the art pain relief. They are only available in a system that medicalizes birth.