Saturday, February 17, 2007

Labor pain as punishment

I am struck by the fact that throughout history labor pain has been explained as punishment for women who do not behave properly. Regrettably, the philosophy driven ("natural") childbirth movement continues to view the pain of labor not as physiologic, which it certainly it, but as symptomatic of something wrong with women.

The pain of labor was so impressive to our Bronze Age forebears that they felt it necessary to attempt an explanation in their founding religious document, the Bible. Indeed, they were so impressed by the universal nature of agonizing childbirth that the only explanation they could think of was that it was a punishment meted out to Eve and all her descendants for disobeying the will of God. The idea of labor pain as punishment was so powerful that it was harnessed by Grantly Dick-Read for his own ends, and is currently endorsed by the PD childbirth movement, though as punishment for entirely different sins.

systemwho has painwho has no pain
BibleEve after sinningEve before she sinned
Grantly Dick Read"overcivilized" white women who want more education and independence"primitive" women who understand that their role is to reproduce
PD ("natural") childbirth advocacy"authentic" women who are "educated"women who are not "educated" and who have not been brainwashed by the "medical" model

These systems share two defining characteristics: lack of knowledge or understanding of the physiologic basis for pain in human labor, and the conviction that women who experience pain in labor have brought it on themselves. In the case of the Bible and the system developed by Grantly Dick-Read, the assumption that women had brought labor pain upon themselves was considered justification for believing that women were inherently sinful and that women could not and should not stray from the domestic sphere into the wider world.

PD ("natural") childbirth advocates also deny the physiologic basis for labor pain, positing that it is in a woman's head instead of her pelvis. However, "authentic" women who "educate" themselves do not have to experience labor pain. Hence, labor pain (as always) marks the women who experience it as deficient in some way. Moreover, within the system of PD childbirth advocates, it is critically important to be seen as a woman who did not experience labor pain or found some way to master and control it.

I have long maintained that PD ("natural") childbirth advocacy is just a way for some women to declare superiority over other women. What I had not realized until recently is that PD ("natural") childbirth advocacy is part of a tradition, lasting thousand of years, which places the blame for labor pain directly on the women who experience it.

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