Monday, February 21, 2011

The Rape of Birth: Feminism’s Final Frontier


When I’m in conversation with a tough, feisty, feminist woman and the subject of birth comes up I am always irritated when I get the usual fearful and horrified reaction. “Knock me out and cut me open!” says one friend. “Natural birth is for martyrs.” says another. The most common refrain is “GIVE ME DRUGS!” Why is it that women can see that they have the right to be treated with dignity and respect in the boardroom but are unable to recognize the hideous mutilation of their rights in the delivery room?

These women are not shrinking violets… most of them would slay dragons at the mere suggestion that they are anything other than tough, strong, capable feminists and yet the mere idea of natural birth makes them quiver in fear. Why is this? Birth is the one thing that only women can do. Birth is the essence of what makes us feminine and uniquely different from men. And yet we have allowed ourselves to become completely divorced from the natural process of birth and all the joy, beauty and power thereof.
For me, feminism is a belief that women in almost every field are at least as competent as men, if not more so, a belief that women and men deserve to be treated with equal respect and a belief that the differences between women and men should be acknowledged and celebrated.

I believe that my FEMINism should be acknowledged. I have never wanted to be ‘As good as’ a man, as that implies that I would need to limit myself to that which is comparable to his manliness at the expense of all those powerful things about my femaleness that give me the edge over him.  Not that I feel it’s necessary to be in competition but if we were, and I was trying to excel in all the masculine ways, I would fall short. I don’t think the Burn your Bra and wear Brogues school of Feminism embraced FEMINism, I think in many ways it shunned it. And yes, it had its place, it got us the vote, and it kick-started the movement that made a Female Prime Minister and a woman CEO possible. And yes, we still have a way to go. But for the most part, women in the western world have woken up to the fact that we deserve better and that we need to continue to fight for our rights, and we have the right to do this as feminine beings, not as women disguised as men. So why is it that the violation of our bodies, the disrespect of our rights and the horrendously misogynistic patriarchy that gets forced onto women in maternity wards is considered acceptable? Why do women leave their Feminist Principles at the entrance to the hospital?

Women bring in birth plans that they have meticulously researched only to have them completely ignored. Women are regularly forced to lie down during labour – a position proven to narrow the pelvic opening and cause pain and difficulty during delivery.  They are treated like children who have no say in what happens to them from the minute they enter the maternity ward. Even though they are expected to perform a taxing physical task, they are denied food and water. They will be told that they are putting their baby’s lives at risk if they fail to comply with hospital policy. They will often have complete strangers shoving fingers up their vaginas against their will. Women whose babies are about to emerge have their vagina’s cut with scissors without warning or consent. In any other situation a woman who is being held down and shouting “NO” while this is happening would be considered a victim of sexual assault, but if she’s in labour, she’s fair game.

The assumption is that women become hysterical during labour and are unable to make rational decisions. The assumption is that her – generally male – doctor has her best interests at heart and wants to ensure that she and the baby leave alive at all costs. The assumption is that birth is always a dangerous and difficult thing to do and that without the help of the good doctor, both woman and baby would probably die. Not to say that birth is never dangerous, but it is, for the most part, normal and natural and safe. When a baby is born in the parking lot of a hospital, or in the car on the way there, people always say ‘Isn’t the baby lucky to be alive?’ Why? Because there wasn’t a white coated man there to catch it?

Until very recently birth was solely the domain of women. However, medicine, that Great Invention of Man, wanted a piece of that pie. Doctors began experimenting on women, killing many thousands of mothers and babies in their ignorance.  Midwifery was disparaged and midwives were often banned from practicing or imprisoned. Medicine learned – from midwives – and Doctors began to get better at keeping women and babies alive – though never approaching the expertise and knowledge of a good midwife. Gradually birth became something that needed to be treated as a disease, not a natural function of life. Gradually women – wanting to be good girls and fearing to put their unborn babies at risk, began choosing the White Coated Man over the homespun midwife. By the 50’s, hospitals, doctors, and medicine had won. They owned birth. They could dehumanize mothers and behave in any way they deemed fit.  They developed ways to knock the mother out during labour, ways to meddle with the process. What they never seemed to understand – and what the midwives always knew – was that the less you meddled with the process of a normal birth, the better the outcome.

Sometimes a helping hand is necessary, and sometimes yes, doctors and hospitals do save the lives of mothers and babies. But the circumstances leading up to the births of almost every baby born to women in hospitals are less than ideal, and sometimes downright dangerous. Five minutes of research on the internet will show you that doctors are practicing outdated and non - evidence based procedures. Two minutes on the internet will show that Caesarean Section is twice as likely to kill you and 3 to 4 times as likely to kill your baby than natural birth is. And yet your doctor will quite happily herd you in the direction of C-Section because it’s ‘safer and easier’. One minute on the internet will get you evidence that doctors are practicing DANGEROUS medicine on babies and woman and yet we sit back and let it happen to us. Why? If men gave birth do you think they would allow doctors to take the same liberties with their bodies? Certainly not! Why? Because they haven’t grown up in a society that leads them to believe their bodies are fragile and unnatural and will let them down when push comes to shove.

Studies have shown that C- Section mothers are 80% more likely to experience serious Post Partum Depression. I believe that part of the reason for this is the medical bypass of vaginal birth. Your body feels as though it has failed. When a C-Section does genuinely save the life of a mother or a child, then it is worth the arduous mental and physical recovery. But when a c- section or a highly interventive and traumatic birth has occurred solely because the doctors and nurses have followed stupid, non evidence based hospital procedure, then the mother is left feeling as though she hasn’t been strong enough to give birth herself. She has been subjected to indignities and painful medical processes and has often been treated as though she is stupid or contrary. It’s easy to see how those feelings of inadequacy can lead to depression. ‘How can I possibly be a good mother to this baby if my body wasn’t even able to give birth normally?’ The normal response from family and friends is usually along the lines of ‘All that matters is a healthy baby.’ This response further negates the mother’s feelings and adds guilt into the mix -‘How could I be obsessing over my traumatic birth experience when I have a healthy child?’ The ‘healthy baby’ argument also further cements the Doctor’s right to do whatever he or she feels is appropriate during the birth of your baby.  It also adds to the prevailing myth that pregnancy and birth are dangerous and arduous processes and that without intervention, a healthy baby would not be a normal outcome.

As a mother who was railroaded into an unnecessary C-Section I urge women to begin to question. I urge women to start to say no to their doctors when they know that they are being bullied. Stop being good girls and be strong women. Educate yourselves. This is your body, your baby, your vagina. Don’t leave all the decisions up to your Doctor because he, or she, does not have YOUR best interests at heart, his first priority is to himself and the hospital. Until we start fighting back en masse, nothing will change.  You have the right to question your doctor about his C-Section stats. You have the right to walk around, deliver in any position you want, eat and drink and limit the amount of people in the labour ward. You have the right to refuse the strap on fetal monitor and request a handheld device. You have the right to refuse Pitocin, epidural, vaginal checks and even the hospital nightgown. Do your research. Don’t let yourself become another broken and unempowered mother who allowed the system to bulldoze her. Be a woman.

Links: A Short History of Birth:
C Section - Maternal Mortality:
Birth Rape:
Post Partum Depression - C Section: