Friday, October 05, 2007


For most of human existence, women's lives, roles, ambitions and possibilities have been severely limited by gender. Women were commonly understood to be inferior, not as strong as men, not as smart as men, not worthy of education, property rights, or voting rights, not eligible for any leadership positions within religions, and in some religions were considered intrinsically sinful.

Women were defined by their biology. The construction of their bodies was thought to render them unfit for anything but their primary biologic function of reproduction and nurturing of children. This idea, that women are defined and limited by their biology, is known as essentialism. Over the last 50-100 years, the theory of biologic essentialism has been rejected by most industrialized societies. However, there is one area where it is still alive and well: in natural childbirth and homebirth advocacy.

Natural childbirth advocacy and homebirth advocacy posit that women are defined and limited by their biology. Most importantly, restricting oneself to being defined and limited by biology are presented as the ideal.

The central role of women's lives is supposed to be biologic reproduction, in other words pregnancy, childbirth and lactation. Mothering, which is primarily a psychologic process, is stripped of everything but its biologic and physical components. Hence the inordinate emphasis placed on the physical process of birth, and the few physical aspects of parenting like lactation. It is not a coincidence that attachment parenting is defined by specific physical practices: carrying a baby, sleeping in the same bed as a child, etc. The various prescriptions of natural childbirth and homebirth advocacy combine to reinforce the notion that a woman is determined by her biology, that her destiny is to live out that biologic role, that her highest calling is to live out that role, and that the role must be lived in strict adherence to biologic limitations.

The essentialism of natural childbirth advocacy dictates that women must reject technology (since it has been the traditional purview of men), that women must emphasize the physical aspects of parenting, that women are improved by suffering biologic pain, that any deviation from the biologic constraints of childbirth (having a C-section instead of a vaginal delivery, for example) is anathema and robs a woman of her fundamental reason for being, that a woman's natural place and the place where she is most fulfilled is within the home, and that parenting requires intensive physical interaction which renders work outside the home virtually impossible.

In the case of a minority of natural childbirth advocates, this biologic essentialism is derived from religion, which is explicit in reducing women to subservience to men, staying in the home, and reproducing and raising large numbers of children to carry on the religion in the next generation. Most natural childbirth advocates and homebirth advocates are not motivated by religion, however, but are motivated by a philosophy of essentialism.

It is noteworthy that large numbers of natural childbirth and homebirth advocates appear to be drawn from a particular education level. Almost all have high school degrees, some have college degrees, very few have advanced degrees, and almost none have professional degrees or professional careers. It is worth asking which came first, the chicken or the egg. Do natural childbirth and homebirth advocates valorize biologic determinants of parenting like vaginal delivery and therefore define their achievements as those that can be accomplished at home? Or, alternatively do women who are not capable of professional success insist that biologic functions like vaginal delivery are "ideal" or "achievements" because those are the only "achievements" they are every going to have?

The world of natural childbirth and homebirth advocacy seems strangely like the 1950's. Women stay home and men work to support them. Women express themselves solely within the domestic sphere. Not only to these women shun professional degrees and professions, but they act as if there are no professional women. Hence the ridiculous claims that they are more "educated" about childbirth than other women (as if no women are doctors), and that intuition is a form of knowledge (as if women can't be scientists, statisticians and mathematicians).

Natural childbirth and homebirth advocates ought to take a look at their biologic essentialism and question it. Vaginal birth, for example, is only "ideal" if one believes that women allowing themselves to be restricted by biology is ideal. The rejection of technology only makes sense if one believes that women are not capable of understanding, creating and mastering technology, the valorization of ignorance and inexperience (direct entry midwifery as superior to "medwifery") only makes sense if you believe that being a doctor or a CNM requires a type of thinking that is beyond women.

The reason that the majority of women reject natural childbirth advocacy and homebirth advocacy is not because they have a fundamentally different view of birth; it is because they have a fundamentally different view of WOMEN. Most women in first world countries reject the notion that they should be defined, limited and controlled by their biology.


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