sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

March 19, 2012

The Feminist War on Obstetrics

Filed under: feminism, parenting, politics — Tags: , , , , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 2:42 pm

I first heard the feminist narrative about midwifery from my History of Science professor, a tall, gaunt gentlemen in his late fifties-early sixties.  It went as follows: in the 18th century or thereabout, male obstetricians displaced female midwives as service providers to bourgeois and upper class families.  Although the physicians were believed to be safer, the death rate among laboring women attended to by doctors was higher because at that time medical professionals often came from straight cadaver theaters into the women’s bedrooms — without washing their hands.  That was before the germ theory of disease was formulated.  Despite the poor results, men usurped the power of women in a traditionally female-dominated field.

I always thought it was a bit problematic to treat this story of early modern childbirth as anything other than an illustration of sorry state of nascent obstetrics.  Because the modern practice of medicine is grounded in scientific method, it eventually reduced maternal and infant mortality dramatically.  In part it has to do with improvements in hygiene, but our advanced understanding of anatomy and physiology as well as technological breakthroughs played a considerable role.

Midwifery, on the other hand, is based in superstition.  Sure, the method employed by traditional healers can not be so counterproductive as to completely wipe out a population.  Midwives might know a few tricks that help to verse the baby or induce labor (or not), but midwifery was but folk healing.  Historically, midwives performed such important medical functions as closing all doors and windows and opening the stove upon entering the house of laboring woman and blowing tobacco into a woman’s face during protracted labor.  One might appreciate the wicked humor and folk poetry on display, but has to admit that neither prescription will offer much help with, say, an umbilical cord problem.  And how about such necessary course of action as putting a string around the father’s penis and tightening it with every contraction?

Although most feminists choose the safety of a hospital birth, the second and the third waves embraced midwifery as a re-emerging social phenomena and made “natural” childbirth an article of female empowerment.  See, for instance, Our Bodies Our Selves , and Feministing celebrating Ina May Gaskin, pioneering feminist midwife who urged women to “take our birth back”.  Gaskin authored “Spiritual Midwifery”, a book that must had seemed dated by the time it came out in 1977.  When traditional midwives ran around the house opening and closing orifices, the late 20th century brought psychedelia.  “Spiritual Midwifery”  describes life on a hippie commune (some say cult) called the Farm, and before then on a caravan of buses, where women delivered each other’s babies.  Gaskin’s female acquaintances and their male partners smoked pot and enjoy sex while in labor.  Some ladies claimed to have orgasmic births, which would be disturbing if true.  Gaskin was an inspiration to Direct Entry Midwives and founded the Midwives Alliance of North America, which claims that home birth is safe but won’t release it’s statistics.  We do know, however, that home birth, as practiced in the United States, is 3 times more dangerous for babies.

The Farm

Stephen Gaskin, Ina May's husband, talks to the followers on the Farm in 1970. Second on the left in the front row looks like Ina May. The Gaskins were once in "six marriage"

I don’t think there exists a Mills College student who doesn’t want to be a midwife, or at least a doula.  Again, not saying that every feminist is a homebirther or all homebirthers are feminists, but there is this particular branch of feminist nuttiness.  Well organized proponents of “natural” childbirth penetrated our best hospitals.  Women attend childbirth prep classes and assigned books that teach us that vaginal unmedicated birth is empowering, and is an achievement.  Even those arranging to give birth in hospitals are advised to refuse continuous fetal monitoring and pain relief in favor of the old feminist favorite — to get off our backs.  Stirrups are viewed as a symbol of oppression.   To make sure that we stick with feminist agenda we compose utterly useless birth plans.  A woman supposing is not very different from the proverbial man supposing.  I must add that “natural” childbirth types bring along various other sketchy individuals, like anti-vaxers and militant breastfeeding activists.

Radical feminists are known for general vilification of OBs, especially male OBs; their profession equated to rape.  The latest outburst of medical rape accusations was in relation to Virginia trans-vaginal ultrasound requirement for abortions.  A few months ago The Other McCain had a thread about liberal women ignoring indisputable scientific evidence that female fertility declines with age.  Rejection of modern obstetrical help in labor, prenatal care and beyond is another way many liberal women are not on good footing when it comes to lady parts and science.

The Debt still

Your male obstetrician is probably not Josef Mengele

Somehow somewhere in a Women’s Studies Department it was decided that men use their tools and cold reasons to subjugate women, but we, women, have the inner wisdom of our bodies as revealed in birth.  What misogynist wouldn’t agree?  Unfortunately women’s bodies are frequently wrong, and historically childbirth was the leading cause of death of young women and children.  Women’s Studies Departments also decided that female bodies are an arena on which power struggles are played out.  (As a side note, feminists borrowed many ideas about power from Michel Foucault who in his late middle age became a cheerleader of the ayatollahs.  We know how that worked out for Iranian women.)  Women’s movement’s obsession with power and the body tells us more about the feminists than the history they attempt to interpret.

Midwife toolbox

Late 19th century English midwife's toolbox. I suspect some of the instruments were invented and improved by male physicians

So when Nancy Pelosi dragged Sandra Fluke to spin tall tales about contraception at Georgetown in front of the federal legislature, the ladies were consolidating power over the bodies of American women.  Pelosi, of course, is working to strengthen government’s grip of the health industry, and Fluke is buffing up her feminist credentials.  She is laughing all the way to the Target pharmacy where she pays $5 to buy a month’s worth of contraception.  And you thought it was about women’s health.

While modern obstetrics are excellent, and perinatal death in the US is the lowest in the world, the c-section rate might be high.  We can probably benefit from tort reform and other market-driven solutions that would turn childbirth into a more honest business.  If it were up to me, I’d shop for a policy with high deductibles, one that would allow me to pay upfront for my stay in the hospital while taking insurance against complications.  Hospitals should be able to sell additional amenities and services (bigger rooms, professional photographers, bottles of campaign).  And why not?  If a woman wants a home-like suite, she should have an opportunity to rent one.  Instead of throwing freebies like that in a prepaid plan, which we already do by the way, make her pay for it directly.  It will lower premiums for everyone while enabling families to have the ambiance they want — if they are willing to pay, that is.  On the other hand, I hear that there is no reason why a Certified Nurse Midwife cannot deliver a baby when no intervention is indicated.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I gave birth twice lying comfortably on my back.  Like other women in my family I had an easy time coping with labor pain.  I actually hired a doula for my first birth.  When I was in transition and moaning gently every now and then, she turned to DH and said: “This is not what 9-10 usually looks like.”  The second time around I did request Demerol to deal with a potentially lethal post-partum complication.  I can’t say I was empowered by childbirth sans anesthetics, I was tired, happy to be safe and hold a healthy baby in my arms.  The nurses at Kaiser, however, were acting like me giving birth was some sort of act of Gaia worship. But enough about my uterus.

I had a lactation consultant scream at me a few hours after giving birth to my first, which lead me to briefly consider giving up the whole ready-made milk idea.  I didn’t.  I breastfed both of my children to 11 and 10 months until I dried up and I highly recommend it.



  1. I love epidurals. That is all.

    Oh, no wait, one more thing! My first baby was delivered by a woman doctor, and I had both an episiotomy and, because I was four weeks early, the baby was immediately whisked away for monitoring – so no bonding, et al. My second was delivered by a male doctor, and was my easiest labor. My third by a midwife and the placenta got stuck which required a surgeon to come in and remove it while I lay there hemorrhaging (and my husband was oh so sensitively thrown out of the room and not told what was going on – all he heard was the urgent page for the surgeon). Do I blame the genders of the doctors and nurse practitioners involved? No, it was a total coincidence each time – one baby was premature, another one did a little flamenco on my placenta on the way out. I hardly think I was assaulted by anyone. Oh, and I’ve had numerous transvaginal ultrasounds, some for a medical condition, others because of the aforementioned low-lying placenta. Now, while I have never been raped (thank God), I can only hope and pray that it is as painless and meaningless of an experience as a transvaginal ultrasound. Though I strongly suspect not. (I also suspect that a prostate exam is worse. Than a transvaginal ultrasound, not a rape. Let’s be clear.)

    Comment by Alina Adams — March 19, 2012 @ 6:47 pm

    • You are right, most of what happens to us when we give birth is completely random. To make some sort of feminist statement out of it makes no sense.
      I hate how nearly all books tell you that if you take anesthetics the baby will come out intoxicated and won’t latch on. I took a breastfeeding class through Kaiser where the teacher showed us a video that said the same thing. I did a little research, turns out, it’s only true about the IV narcotics, and does not apply to epidural. Yet they get mothers freaked out about pain relief.
      My post-partum complication was actually a blood clot which could lead to hemorrhage. Luckily my nurse was very smart and she identified it right away. It hurt like hell when they touched my stomach — more than labor but not as much as starting out breastfeeding. I wanted Demerol, so when the doctor brushed it out I didn’t feel anything. If it was absolutely necessary, I suppose, I could deal with the pain, but why? I’ve experienced enough pain in my life; I don’t need any more of it.
      …Your doctor is your friend… even if he’s doing transvaginal ultrasound.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — March 19, 2012 @ 11:01 pm

  2. How did this become some feminist mantra? I know feminists who’ve chosen hospitals as well as those who’ve gone the midwife route. Also, her stats are very wrong. The US has one of the highest infant mortality rates of any developed nation. We have too many OB docs who are impatient and want to induce, induce, induce. We also have THE HIGHEST rate of unnecessary cesarians. A c-section is a surgical procedure with serious risks and should only be used when medically necessary. And yes, some of the drugs ARE dangerous to both child and mother – particularly those used to induce. You can look up the side effects and risks of the drugs yourself.
    Midwifery also isn’t based on “superstition.” At one time, it may have been if you were using some backwoods, barefoot, voodoo lady. Now, it is an educated and respected field. You can easily find a well educated nurse midwife who is well trained enough to help you bring your child into the world and knows when you require a doctor to help when things don’t go quite right. The best thing to do is to go to a qualified birthing center with medically trained midwives if you’re looking to go that route. Make sure it’s either inside or within a mile of a hospital, just in case there are complications. Utilize a good OB during your pre-natal care so he/she is familiar with your medical history and your pregnancy should you require emergency surgical assistance during delivery.
    Conversely, if it’s more important to you to get drugged up so you feel no pain and you don’t want to worry about being transported to a hospital if you need emergent OB care during child birth, then by all means, have your baby in a hospital. You have options and choices. Just be educated about them and make the right one for you AND your baby. Ignorantly bashing other options just shows a fear of the unknown and attempted intimidation of those seeking a comfortable way to bring their child into the world.

    Comment by Amanda — March 20, 2012 @ 8:37 am

    • Amanda,
      “How did this become some feminist mantra?” It’s a part of 2nd and 3rd wave feminist project.
      Infant mortality is a wrong statistic to use. It includes the deaths of children under 1 year of age, which reflects the health of infant population and may have nothing to do with birth. The right statistic is perinatal death rate, and the US has one of the lowest in the world, see link.
      C-sections carry a risk, and when docs decide to operate they weigh this risk against the risk to the baby.
      Docs don’t make c-sections because they are “necessary”; we don’t know if it’s necessary before the baby is born alive or dead. Docs perform it when indicated, ie there is a chance that the baby won’t make it, and that risk is greater than that of a c-section. I do think we need a tort reform so that parents won’t litigate 18 years after the fact when their child doesn’t get into the school of his choice. I’m not sure what it would do to the c-section rate, but it will help us to keep the cost down.
      Certified Nurse Midwives working in hospitals are, in fact, true professionals. My cousin is one. Homebirth midwives are not, which explains the high death rate (see my link).
      I learn from ethnographic papers that getting “drugged up” was important to pretty much all women in all times. Traditionally midwives carried potions to both speed up the labor and alleviate pain. Now we developed safe and reliable way to be pain free. I want to thank physicians and innovators for that; I’m pretty sure most of them were male.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — March 20, 2012 @ 9:09 am

  3. Enough about your uterus, let’s talk about mine.

    True story.

    First son came out with some of my cervix on his head, and so that need patching up. I was informed that a hefty dose of stadol would put me out, and mostly it did. Couldn’t feel, couldn’t move.

    But I could hear the young female corpsman who came in the room.

    What!?! Happened to her!?!

    The two ob-gyns stitching me up had a good laugh. She just had a baby, that’s all.

    What!?! Is that?!? Just a tiny episiotomy, she asked for that.

    I’m never! Having children!

    I wonder if that young woman ever changed her mind.

    Comment by nooneofanyimport — March 20, 2012 @ 7:45 pm

  4. and oh, yeah . . . she really did scream at you, this lactation consultant? wow.

    Comment by nooneofanyimport — March 20, 2012 @ 7:47 pm

    • OMG! I didn’t know such thing was possible. I did get some stitches the first time around, but you win.
      I’m suspect she did change her mind… although when I was that age I knew pretty well that I wanted to have children.
      That lactation consultant… My daughter had problems latching on, a nurse stopped by, I described our issues. She said: “Oh, she’s using you as a pacifier. I’ll send in a lactation consultant.” So after a while the LC came in and I said: “She’s using me as a pacifier.” That’s when the hell broke loose. “Don’t blame her!!! She’s doing what she needs to do!!!” Me and DH look at each other. What was I guilty of, exactly? Repeating what the nurse suggested?
      …One mom I know had eclampsia, she ended up with a c-section under full anesthesia and then spent 3 days in medically-induced coma. She couldn’t nurse, so her daughter had nipple confusion and never latched on. While she was trying to initiate bf the LCs were blaming her for failing.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — March 20, 2012 @ 10:04 pm

  5. “Your male obstetrician is probably not Josef Mengele.”


    Comment by KingShamus — March 21, 2012 @ 5:48 am

    • I wanted to find The Debt still where she stubs him with a syringe, but nobody had it. Oh well. This one is good enough.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — March 21, 2012 @ 9:51 am

  6. I had a pretty wicked birth experience the first time around. Induced for myriad reasons at 39 weeks with a kid who obviously didn’t want to come out (you should see the scowl on her first pictures). Long story short, all interventions indeed led to others. And yes, after 18 hours of misery I was told I’d need a c-section.

    My mother almost died after hers. Needless to say, I wasn’t too excited.

    Prayed for an hour.

    Still had to have the c-section.

    After my dearest was born, my L&D nurse told my husband and I–with tears in her eyes–not to see this as a problem, but a blessing. I was still pretty drugged and at high risk for blood clots. A what, you say in jest? My daughter had a full knot in her cord. The type of knot they usually see on full-term stillbirths.

    So after that, I accepted the induction and c-section as a blessing. Because I might not have ended up with pjKid. Bring on the next one if necessary.

    Comment by pjMom — March 21, 2012 @ 9:43 pm

  7. An amusing story here. It was winter, snow all around, you know, COLD. A couple wanted to birth a completely calm child, and so, with the help of a midwife, the child entered the world whilst Mom and Dad were IN THE BATHTUB!!! And the child seemed to be DYING (breathing problems, what with the water and all…). So, horrors, an ambulance came lickety split, Mom and Dad running out to said vehicle, NAKED, and all 3 were flown south to a major city where there is plenty of eeevvvillll technical stuff, which dragged child from the River Styx, and she is just fine. So are Mom and Dad. I don’t know about the midwife.

    I must tell you, it is quite possible for a midwife to attend a birth inside the local hospital, peach coloured walls, soothing music and all. But some people just want to stay home in their own bathtub.

    Comment by heathermc — March 21, 2012 @ 9:53 pm

  8. PJ Mom, Heather,
    I’m glad everyone was safe at the end. Which is all that matters. Can only imagine what this ambulance ride was like for you Heather.

    Comment by edge of the sandbox — March 22, 2012 @ 3:39 pm

  9. […] middle class neurotic white women’s playground, in other words a late 20th-early 21st century feminist shtick. Christian Lander found “natural” childbirth to be very Caucasian, and put it in […]

    Pingback by Not Sure This Qualifies for Offend a Feminist Week, But I’ll Try « sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue — May 12, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

  10. […] years.  Ganju has been a vocal proponent of it.  Here she is, for instance, singing praises to a hippie midwife.  She is a widely-published authority on breastfeeding who had recently admitted to being unable […]

    Pingback by Attachment Parenting Proponent Calls for a Halt in the Mommy Wars « sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue — May 14, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

  11. […] to have natural childbirths, not because I planned it this way, but because I’m one of those freaks who finds it easy to cope with labor pain.  I am a stay at home mom, although it’s something […]

    Pingback by Ask Your Councilman Where He Stands on Grantly Dick-Read « sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue — August 2, 2012 @ 1:46 pm

  12. Who wrote this pile of shit?

    Comment by — March 19, 2013 @ 12:09 pm

  13. A lactation consultant who ‘screams’ at a woman who just gave birth, should be banned from ever setting foot back into a maternity ward. I firmly believe maternity wards are not the best place for women, especially since they are staffed mostly by other women who think its okay to force things on female patients. If a male health professional did the same, he’d be accused of abuse or rape. I had an obstetrical nurse force a cervical check on me that was extremely painful, and even though I told her to stop.

    Comment by Flon — March 27, 2013 @ 7:34 pm

    • Yeah… It’s a pretty feminized field, whether you go to a hospital or not. It’s been a while since I saw a male OB. I can imagine that man are interested in the field because it’s so positive — they don’t see a lot of bad outcomes.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — March 27, 2013 @ 10:50 pm

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