Thursday, March 15, 2007

Post modern feminism and "natural" childbirth

The "third wave" feminist critics of the "natural" childbirth model are sometimes called post modern feminists. Many post modern feminists oppose the "medical model" of childbirth, but are uncomfortable with the portrayal of women created by the "natural" childbirth movement. Amy Schreifer, in Shifting the Medical Gaze: Towards a Feminist Ethic of Childbirth, describes other post modern critiques:
Conflating women with motherhood and stressing the return of childbirth to the home limits women's definition of her experience during labor, much like the medical definitions of childbirth. It also traps women who physically give birth into constructed ideologies of motherhood, disregarding, for example, the women who plan to place the child with adoptive parents (and at the same time denying these adoptive parents the ability to be "real" mothers) or women serving as surrogates. Arguing for the restoration of childbirth to the domestic realm of the home is seemingly reminiscent of nineteenth century Victorian rhetoric that espoused woman's confinement to the private sphere. In their book, Confinements: Fertility and Infertility in Contemporary Culture, postmodern feminists Helena Michie and Naomi Cahn discuss how the equation of home with feelings of safety and control in the discourse of natural childbirth relies on middle-class notions of home and domesticity. For many women, particularly working-class women, home is not always a safe and comfortable environment.

Feminists should also question whether this resistance should take place from within the idiom of the natural. When referencing feminist concerns, the term "nature" is often problematic because it conjures debates about essentialism. By associating woman with nature, natural childbirth advocates often confine women to the very definitions of gender that feminism is so invested in dismantling...

This counter discourse places limits on how we can define pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood. Appeals to the natural or holistic are potentially harmful because they can also be co-opted and used against women, just as ideas of an essentialist nature of woman have been used by patriarchal capitalist forces to maintain gender stratification. At the same time, it is defeating to deny that reproductive technologies are beyond feminist definition and control.

In The Other Machine: Discourse and Reproductive Technologies, Dion Farquhar questions the construction of reproductive technologies as inherently oppressive to women. She states, "In focusing on women's passive and victim relation to prenatal technologies this analysis omits the degree to which women accept, invoke, and adapt these technologies." Technologies can manipulate the body in a coercive manners, but they can also "stimulate, multiply, and extend the body's function in liberating or hybridizing ones," it just depends on in what context they are being used and by whom. A feminist ethic of childbirth could benefit from interrogating not only the ways in which reproductive technologies are used to control and contain women during labor, but also they ways in which delivering women can use these technologies themselves to shape and enhance their childbirth experience. Natural childbirth advocates offer many possibilities for effective resistance and subversion, but a feminist ethic of childbirth needs to deconstruct the limitations of domesticity, gender, and technology inherent in this discourse.
Although Schreifer believes, "A primary goal of a feminist ethic of childbirth would be dismantling pathological constructions of pregnancy and labor, thus lessening the need for the disciplining medical gaze and automatic intervention.", she acknowledges, "In approaching childbirth, it is impossible to deny the medical and technological component of this issue and the desire many women have for it to remain a medical issue." Her conclusion is to place the responsibility for decision making on individual women who can invoke their own needs, beliefs and desires.
Rather than remove childbirth completely from the hospital and eliminate technologies, we should support efforts to build health care models and institutions that enable women to structure their childbirth experiences around their needs. This includes demanding access, legally and financially, for all women to the proper health care of their choice, whether that is a planned C-section with the deepest anesthesia or a midwife attended home birth in a whirlpool. In working with, instead of against, the activists in the prepared childbirth and natural childbirth movements, we can strengthen their efforts to educate women and lobby for the decriminalization of midwifery and home birth, bringing women closer to the right to define birth on their own terms. By validating women's ability to shape and define their childbirth based on their embodied knowledge of their own experiences we give a woman in labor the opportunity, if she so chooses, to look within herself and shift the panopticon to her own eye.
Ultimately, Schreifer supports a woman's choice for homebirth because it is HER choice, not because it is a superior choice or even a good choice, and acknowledges that other choices, even opposite choices, are equally valid.

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