Birth as a Feminist Act (Responsorial)

Over at LG&M, bean opines on the notion of birth qua birth as a feminist act:
In an age where c-sections are being labeled "pre-existing conditions" and the cesarean rate continues to rise (not necessarily at women's election), it seems to me that we have lost the feminist angle on labor and delivery. It is something only a woman can do. It is how life is created and sustained. It reveals women's sheer strength and endurance.

Certainly vaginal birth at all - nevermind in a birthing center or at home -it is not available for all women, and we should be (and I am) thankful that cesareans and other interventions exist when vaginal labor would put the woman's or child's health at risk. But absent those risks, it seems worth highlighting that giving birth in a woman-centered, midwife-assisted environment is a feminist act. It is feminist in that it focuses on women's unique ability; and in that it enables strength within a couple and family by allowing the woman's partner to be an active part of the labor by supporting her both emotionally and physically (holding her legs, providing support while she squats).

First of all, let me say that I agree -- birth can be a very feminist act. It is a testament to the strength of women that our species has not died out from sheer unwillingness to endure the rigor and pain of pregnancy and childbirth.But I believe that is true no matter the nature of delivery. And I believe that because my daughter entered the world in the complete oppositite of the midwife-assisted environment -- and yet I found that to be no less a feminist experience than any other experience I've ever had.

My ex-wife endured 42 weeks of pregnancy. My daughter had not arrived eleven days after the due date, and we went into the hospital for her to be induced into labor. Now, my ex had chosen a hospital as the setting for labor and delivery early on. Her paramount concern was not whether she felt warm and fuzzy about the birth experience, it was that she and our daughter had good medical assistance steps away, rather than an ambulance ride away.

It wasn't an easy delivery. My ex dilated to about 2 immediately, and then stayed there for hours. Eventually, our OB/Gyn, Susan Torkelson, did an ultrasound and figured out why: my daughter, in her infinite wisdom, had turned herself sideways, jamming herself into the birth canal in such a way that she wasn't coming out. Dr. Torkelson set up for a ceasarean section, one I did not ultimately witness, because the spinal block they attempted on my ex actually paralyzed her diaphragm, forcing the anesthesiologist to sedate and intubate her while Dr. Torkelson performed what had become emergency surgery. I was brought in after my daughter was delivered, while my ex was still sedated.

"That's not a fun story," you say, and it wasn't. And yet in thinking back on it, I think it was a truly feminist moment, in the sense that it involved three strong women. My ex-wife had a miserable pregnancy for nine months plus two weeks, sick throughout the process, and chose to eschew even some remedies she was allowed because she was convinced she was strong enough to handle it -- and she was. The surgeon wielding the scalpel was a woman, a Dartmouth-educated doctor who cared for my ex and my daughter with aplomb throughout the pregnancy. And the child born was my daughter, who is the daughter of two feminists, and who is already showing signs that she will be one when she grows up, too.

Moreover, the delivery was what my ex-wife wanted, how she wanted to deliver our child into the world. It was what she was most comfortable with, and while it wasn't fun, she was happier with doctors she trusted and medical equipment standing by than she would have been with a doula. My ex-wife was fully aware and educated about her choices, and this was her choice. And given that both she and my daughter are today happy, healthy, and alive, I know she made the right one.

That doesn't mean my ex's choice is right for everyone, or that those who choose differently are somehow wrong. But it brings me to that word that we keep using: choice. What was feminist about my ex-wife's birthing experience was that she made her choices with eyes open, and made them for the reasons she believed in. What is ultimately feminist about birthing options is that options exist, that women can research and learn and choose for themselves what they want to do. Birth is one of the most amazing processes there is, and one of the most difficult, and always women-centered. But birth predated feminism by a billion years. It is the option, the choice to give birth on one's own terms that makes it a feminist experience. It is the choice, not the method of delivery, that has meaning.


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