Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Feminist Politics of Birth

The grading season is in full swing. Students are furiously studying and scratching out their final examinations, and then piles of papers land on our desks. Whenever we dare sigh at the spectacle of those ungraded piles, a student is usually ready-to-hand to suggest that we just give all of them As. Oh, if I could make it through one semester without a student proposing that to me I would be a happy, happy feminista.

I am trying to get through this grading season because on the other side of it is the beginning of my full-time experience as a mother. I have 2+ months until my daughter is born, and after that I am off for a semester to embark on a new area of study: how to be a mother. It really is uncanny, btw, how many folks do, in fact, give me advice on this. But, I think what amazes me even more is that many of them get offended if I don't actually share their worldview on how to give birth, how to raise children, or what it means to be a mother.

I am not a radical when it comes to the medical model approach to birth. I grew up in a medical family and I am well situated in the field of philosophy of Psychiatry and was recently appointed as an associate editor of a Bioethics journal. I spend a lot of time thinking about what is right, wrong, and problematic with medicine, but I don't tend to see the entire OBGYN practice as opposed to a healthy birth. But, ultimately, this is because I don't seem to share the same definition of "natural" that many of the books that colleagues have lent me hold.

The radical critique of the medical model and childbirth follows from a belief that OBGYNs have "medicalized" birth, and thereby made it needlessly technologically driven and micro-managed. The view is that OBGYNs see birth as something akin to an illness or disease that requires a great deal of medical expertise to negotiate safely. Because the medical practitioners don't view birth as something "natural" they tend to make the experience worse for mothers-to-be by performing unecessary operations such as C-sections and episiotimies.

While I do believe that some physicians are not sensitive to their patient's wants, that they are impatient and tend to want to control how the birth unfolds, etc., I don't share the view that the best approach to childbirth is the "natural" view. Now, having said that, I also don't go around criticizing or even looking down on women/men who do share this view. How one chooses to give birth follows from the assumptions one holds about what birthing should be like, who should be invovled and what the intentions of the medical professions are.

The fundamental reason why I am not vigilantly fighting the recommendations of my physician is because I don't think that "natural" always means "better." Those of you who have read my blog know that I rarely take an anti-technology perspective on medical matters, whether it be enhancement drugs or drugs that eliminate periods. I am definitely a feminist, but I don't see how being a feminist is inextricably linked with a radical critique of technology, that also seems to follow from a rather ill informed perspective on biology. The fact is, just because certain biological processes have evolved the way they have, doesn't mean that we should bow to them and worship them as the best of all possible ways of proceeding. Evolution is not an intelligent designer. And, frankly, there is a lot about birth and pregnancy that only confirms my suspicion that we are, in fact, coping with a rather unintelligent designer.

So, if we humans with our rational thinking can actually develop technologies that improve a "natural" process in ways that makes it less frightening, painful, or risky, then why on earth shouldn't we? I think that many of my friends that reject a technological childbirth, also reject aspirin. They see all technology as part of a patriarchal instinct to rule and tame nature, which includes the feminine. But, you see, I just don't share this perspective. I don't.

But I am never able to engage in these sorts of conversations with others in a way that is productive. It usually just leads to frustration with either my "false consciousness" or, alternatively, the natural childbirth mommies I know think I am judging them and their choices. I can understand why they would. But, what they always seem to forget is that I didn't ask them what choices they made, why they made them, and then launch into a criticism of their choices. Rather, I was told to read "X," to join this or that birthing circle, or to get a doula and when I say that I am not going to, then, well, I get the disappointed look.

The fact that feminists have made criticisms of healthcare and particularly women's healthcare is important. I share many, many of their concerns and devote a great deal of my intellectual life making such critiques. But, my criticisms begin from a rather different starting point that I fear puts me on the outs of many feminists. I am now wondering how I will fare, post-partum on some of my choices about how to rear my child.

No doubt the personal is political, but sometimes I just want it to be personal.