[originally posted on my old blog on 23 July 2008]
I am a natural childbirth advocate, in the sense that I believe that laboring and giving birth without interference (including but not limited to pain medication) can be an ecstatic and deeply empowering experience. I strongly believe that women who want to have their babies in this tradition should be supported in every humanly possible way. I also strongly believe that our medical system needs to make a lot of changes to be mother- and baby-friendly and stop pushing induction/augmentation and epidurals (and continuous fetal monitoring, etc., etc.) on women who neither want nor need them.
(Not incidentally, though, I also strongly believe that women who want epidurals or other forms of medical intervention should be supported in every humanly possible way in achieving their ideal births, too.)
“Natural childbirth” does not exist for humans. This term is really interesting and really problematic. I don’t like to use it, for several reasons:
- Where do we draw the line? If I wanted to have a “natural” childbirth and gave birth vaginally, out-of-hospital, but took Nubain and had a glucose IV, was that “natural”? Or if my labor was induced or augmented, but I labored without further intervention–does it count as “natural”? Does it depend upon whether the induction/augmentation was through pitocin, homeopathy, AROM (breaking the bag of waters), nipple stimulation by a nurse, nipple stimulation by a partner, … ? Etc., etc.
- Take that one step farther. If I give birth inside a house, is that “natural”? With plastic down to catch my fluids, watching a clock to time some contractions, maybe hanging out in the bathtub or shower for a while, peeing in a toilet, using English to ask for water or a cool washcloth or whatever, with my partner and/or midwife who’s wearing clothes, and a phone available in case of emergency? That’s a culturally-constructed environment, drugs or no drugs.
- What does “natural” mean? Is it the opposite of “cultural”? (You can’t get out of culture, and I suspect you don’t really want to. Love is culturally constructed. My monogamous relationship with my husband is culturally constructed. His role as an involved attendant as I birthed our son is not only clearly culturally constructed but, historically, downright weird–as ‘unnatural’ as an epidural, perhaps?)
- When you get down to it, “natural” is usually used to imply that something is normal (as in, the norm from which deviants deviate), unchanging, unchangeable, and therefore in some sense correct–thus nasty arguments that homosexuality (or interracial relationships, or women working outside the home, or veganism, or whatever) is “unnatural.” Instead, I would argue that rules about who can have sex with whom, rules about food choice, rules about gender roles, and so forth are all socially constructed and (you’ll find, if you look) highly variable both amongst cultures and over time within a single culture. That’s also true for virtually everything about the practices of childbirth and parenting, of course.
- Using the term “natural” in a vague feel-good way (“I want to have a natural birth”) sets many women up for a sense of failure if medical intervention becomes necessary or desirable (Did I fail because of that damned IV?). It also makes epidural-choosing mothers feel judged–because the implication that my birth was natural and yours was unnatural is a harsh judgment indeed.
- Furthermore, this terminology reinforces the assumption that the nature/culture divide is real. And let me tell you, ladies, the construction of nature and culture as opposed terms has been used time and time again to screw over women (and people of color) in nearly every imaginable way. When I hear “nature” or “natural,” I get suspicious. “Nature” and “natural” make me think “agenda” and “ideology.”
I much prefer to think and talk about ‘low-intervention childbirth.’ (‘Unmedicated childbirth’ certainly also makes sense if that’s what you mean–that you specifically want to avoid drugs during labor). Another advantage of ‘low-intervention childbirth’ or a similar term is that it undercuts what I see as yet another major pitfall of “natural childbirth”: a lot of people think of natural childbirth as vaginal birth without an epidural, but that’s not all I mean when I say I’m “a natural childbirth advocate.” To get that ecstatic and empowering experience, women need a hell of a lot more than druglessness. They need caregivers and support people who truly believe in their ability to birth a child in joy and power. They need caregivers who accept this woman’s and this fetus’s timeline rather than trying to mold every labor into a textbook labor. They need an environment of peace, quiet, and respect. They need the power to determine their own birthing place and to make truly informed decisions about their care, without disrespect and struggles.
If you ask whether a doctor or hospital supports “natural birth” and are answered “yes” (meaning, sure, go nuts and experience the pain without an epidural), you’re not hearing whether they support and provide all of this other–far more important–stuff. The term”natural birth” is so vague that I believe it fails us in our work to create the birth culture we so badly need.