The philosophy of natural childbirth is sadistic


Nearly a month ago, the website Feminist Current featured a powerful, thought provoking piece entitled Eve’s punishment rebooted: The ideology of natural birth by philosophy graduate student C.K. Egbert.

There’s something pornographic about the way we depict childbirth. A woman’s agony becomes either the brunt of a joke, or else it is discussed as an awesome spiritual experience… [W]e talk about the pain of childbirth — with few exceptions, the most excruciating, exhausting, and dangerous ordeal within human experience — as valuable in and of itself. Hurting women is sexy.

The euphemistically termed “natural childbirth” is often justified on the basis that it is a woman’s choice, that pregnancy and birth is a “natural process,” and that it is best for the woman and baby (both for medical reasons, and because a woman won’t feel attached to her child otherwise). Put into context, these arguments ultimately boil down to “women’s suffering is good.” …

When people tout “natural birth” as an “empowering choice” (sound familiar?), they conveniently ignore all the women who have been harmed by these practices and for whom giving birth was (completely understandably and legitimately) one of the worst experiences of their lives. Natural birth advocates, just like many in the pro-sex movement, don’t seem to be concerned about the harm that women suffer through this practice or finding ways of preventing this harm from occurring. Women can choose, as long as they choose to suffer and see themselves as liberated through suffering.

Egbert is brutally honest about the philosophy of natural childbirth. Responding to the claim that natural childbirth is “better,” she notes:

What about the argument for women’s health? We probably wouldn’t give much credit to an argument that we should strap patients to the operating table and refuse them anesthetic during surgery, even though general anesthetic is usually the most dangerous part of surgery. Rather than eliminating palliative care, we seek safer and more effective means of performing surgeries and administering anesthetic. Natural birth advocates are not concerned with women’s welfare, because they are not advocating for safer and more effective forms of pain management; they argue they should be eliminated, because women’s suffering is itself a good. And while feminists applaud efforts to give women support and comfort during the birth process (e.g., emotional support, more home-like birthing environments, etc.), this is compatible with providing women pain medication. Once again, the danger of anesthetic only becomes an issue — rather than a normalized part of medical treatment — only when and because it can be used to hurt women. (my emphasis)

Not surprisingly, there was tremendous push-back from natural childbirth advocates, but Egbert skillfully defended her thesis in the comments section.

But this isn’t about the best way to give birth. It’s about what significance we give to women’s suffering and pain, and how that relates to women’s subordination in general.

Exactly, and in the world of natural childbirth advocacy, women’s pain and suffering is “sexy” and “empowering.”

That’s not surprising when you consider that the philosophy of natural childbirth was created by old, white men who tried to convince women that the pain of childbirth was in their heads, not their bodies. And the philosophy of natural childbirth has been perpetuated by white women (midwives, doulas and childbirth educators) who enjoy wielding power over other women and glory in humiliating them for failing to mirror their own choices back to them. The tragedy is that many women are complicit in their own subjugation and claim to be “empowered” by it, because they are so used to being judged and bullied that they believe it is for their own good.

Simply put, the philosophy of natural childbirth is deeply retrograde and profoundly anti-feminist.

I’ll even go a step further. The philosophy of natural childbirth is sadistic in that its promoters derive pleasure from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others and actively prevent others from seeking relief for their pain.

The originators of the philosophy of natural childbirth were sadists when it came to women’s pain. They felt that it was irrelevant, unworthy of treatment, and annoying to doctors. The philosophy of natural childbirth could best be encapsulated as, “Shut up and give birth without bothering us.”

The contemporary avatars of the philosophy of natural childbirth are often sadists when it comes to women’s pain. They consider it irrelevant, unworthy of treatment, and resent effective pain relief as “weakness” and “unhealthy,” when it is neither.

The midwives and doulas who chivvy women into refusing pain relief, who “delay” calling the anesthesiologist when a woman requests an epidural, who promote inadequate forms of pain relief (waterbirth) and praise women as warrior mamas (i.e. “good girls”) for enduring labor without pain relief are sadists. They believe that women’s pain and suffering aren’t worthy of their compassion and concern. They believe that women are improved by agonizing pain, and diminished by relief.

The philosophy of natural childbirth is not based on science; it is based on fundamental beliefs about the irrelevance of women’s suffering, beliefs about the ways that women “should” use their bodies, and value that natural childbirth providers place on their (the providers’) autonomy and having their own personal choices mirrored back to them.

The philosophy of natural childbirth is about glorifying and enjoying women’s agony, and that, of course, is nothing more than sadism.


For more of my thoughts on the subject, you can listen to the Feminist Current Podcast Is ‘natural’ better when it comes to birth? An interview with Dr. Amy Tuteur.