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.
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.
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.
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.