Birth is a feminist issue.

When discussing the politics of reproductive rights, many of us focus on abortion access and care (which is essential, of course), and forget about the other side of the coin — that birth and birth choices are also a feminist issue; and many women are being kept in the dark, unaware of and denied their options.

The spectrum of reproductive choice doesn’t end once a person decides to continue with a pregnancy — choosing to be pregnant is only a small piece of the reproductive choice puzzle.  For many, birth choices are veiled by the idea that birth is a dangerous thing that needs to be controlled in a hospital, highly medicated, and under constant observation and instruction. What’s left is a culture that distrusts womens’ physiological ability to birth their babies; a culture that believes that women and their bodies are too incompetent to make their own decisions about birth. And let’s be real — some of us are starting to believe it.

“Terese crowning in ecstatic childbirth” from Ina May Gaskin’s book ‘Ina May’s guide to childbirth’

Let’s not pretend that this view doesn’t have it’s roots in good ol’ misogyny. The unnecessary medicalization of birth is just another way that the powers that be (read: powerful men) have taken it upon themselves to once again lay claim to our bodies.  We’re told that we’re incapable of making our own choices about contraception, sex, abortion, and childbirth, and if we’re not trusted enough to make decisions about our own bodies and physiological processes, how could we possibly be trusted enough to go into the world and lead countries, start successful businesses, or be seen as equals in a professional setting? But that’s exactly the point.

The truth is that these misogynistic undertones work to belittle our strength and capability, and frame us as damsels who are constantly in need of a good rescuing. They believe that — often without giving us the chance to do it our own way — that they must take charge of our experience or else we will fail (and in doing so kill our babies, kill ourselves, or do whatever other horrible thing they can threaten us with that goes against actual medical research). Being poked and prodded and examined without being fully informed of the alternative options or being given a second opinion sends a clear, patronizing message to people giving birth — silly girl, you don’t know what you’re doing, leave this to the experts!

We’ve been conditioned to believe that we are unable to do it on our own. That the pain will be unbearable, that our babies are just too big for a vaginal birth, that if we’re not given induced at 39 weeks that baby will stay in there forever. The injustice comes when people are not given the appropriate information to make informed choices about their care — whether it be that induction can double the liklihood of cesarean, or that lying on your back is, physiologically, one of the worst positions for birth. Don’t get me wrong: having access to medical intervention is an absolutely essential piece of the puzzle that keeps people safe and maternal mortality and morbidity rates down. But studies also show that in healthy pregnancies, the outcomes for women who have planned home births with midwifes are as good if not better than those with planned hospital births (whether attended by a midwife or physician). This information is often kept from women, with home birth still being looked at as the dangerous “fringe” choice rather than a safe and valid one. Thankfully, the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP)  covers the cost of midwifery care and the Ontario government is taking steps to offer more choices to women; the introduction of birth centers is a perfect way to bridge the gap between home and hospital birth. 

As a doula, I view birth as a physiological process that women are absolutely capable of experiencing on their own without intervention the vast majority of the time. I also realize that some people don’t want to have a natural birth at home in the bathtub with a midwife by candlelight. Some people want epidurals or to be able to plan the day of their baby’s birth, and that’s okay too! The key here is that there needs to be a dialogue between the mother and her care provider, rather than a pre-laid medicalized plan that dehumanizes the mother and turns normal birth into a sterile, medicalized event. My job is to respect the choices of pregnant women without judgement — regardless of whether or not they are ones I would make for myself. What’s important is not whether or not women are making “right” or “wrong” choices (according to whom,  I don’t know), but rather whether or not they’re making fully informed choices that work in a way that’s best for them — and that when all is said and done, they can look back on their birth experience with joy rather than with regret, able to take full responsibility for their own decisions throughout the process (and therefore able to bask in their success!).

We need to take birth back and make it a priority in our communities. As important as the issues of access to contraceptives, abortion, and well-women care are — it’s also essential that we’re given the chance to birth in a way that is empowering, rather than disenfranchising. And the only way to make birth a universally positive experience is to give the reins back to the people who are birthing and respect the choices they make in regards to their birth experience. Whether that means a drug-free home birth, an epidural, or a scheduled c-section — we need to respect that people truly do know what is the best route for themselves. Afterall, the best way for a person to birth is however they feel the safest.

From a feminist perspective, it’s all about taking the power back. We are powerful and smart and amazing enough to make these choices for ourselves. We can rely on the help and expertise of doctors, midwives, and doulas to walk with us through our journeys in birth — but it’s essential that we’re put at the forefront of the decision making process. The power of birth is systematically being taken away from us by a culture that believes that our bodies and minds are fundamentally flawed to the point where birth is no longer a natural process, but rather a medical one —and that absolutely makes birth a feminist issue. Our babies and ourselves deserve so much better.

43 thoughts on “Birth is a feminist issue.

  1. I love this! Thank you. I have been working on a piece about birth as a feminist act, but it had been put to the side as more pressing topics emerged. You’ve inspired me to pick it up again. Your perspective is right on the money. Feminism is about choice and the multiplicity of experience. Thank you again for this wonderful post.

  2. As a feminist who has written about the importance of claiming birth for women as the empowering experience that it is [The Childbirth Educator as Ethnographer: A Feminist Retrospective Ethnography of a Professional Practice, PhD thesis, 2002], I am delighted to see someone writing on the feminist issues of childbirth. I used my case notes as a childbirth educator and doula as the data for writing my PhD. Birth is a feminist issue and always has been, right down to the struggle for territory between midwives and medical men centuries ago. When I began as a childbirth educator 35 years ago, women were fighting for control over their bodies on many fronts within reproductive rights, but feminism has taken a passive stand around birth over the years. It was too essentialist and deterministic for women wanting to strike out in the world on an equal par with men. Perhaps in the 21st. century a feminist perspective can help to restore the balance for empowered birth in the future.
    Diane S Speier, PhD

  3. Thank you for this. Just had a baby girl two months ago. She’s my second. Same hospital but this time with a doula. Made a world of difference. I’m from Ontario but living in a small town in the Czech Republic. Homebirth wasn’t really an option. Did it my way and had back up from an amazing woman. It went so well that I’m a little sad she is our last baby. I love that you’ve written this. Am going to pass it on. My feminism respects that I have the right to make choices and so do other women. The most feminist line in your piece: “My job is to respect the choices of pregnant women without judgement — regardless of whether or not they are ones I would make for myself.” Sing it!
    Kavita
    Cesky Krumlov

    • Indeed, you have to respect the choices of pregnant daughters without judgement too, I learned just this year! Her choices were not ones I would have made as a mother or as a birth professional, but they were hers to make. And well done for creating the birth you wanted in a part of the world that is definitely into suppressing the rights of women to practice midwifery, even when they are a physician too! That’s a big feminist issue!

  4. Thank you, Nes, for a GREAT piece! You are absolutely right that, “Birth is a feminist issue.” I am right on the front line with you, girlfriend!

  5. Thank you so much for summarazing my feelings so succinctly. I’m very happy someone I know linked this to me, I will be reading you from now on.

  6. Thank you so much for this post! I just brought it up this very issue with feminists4choice.com after reading you. I do not (yet) have children, but was pulled into the birth world with doula training and meeting some amazing women.

    What strikes me the most is the naivete of my feminist peers, in their early-mid-late twenties who do not have children (yet). Birth is not on the radar of a majority of these people. Maybe because we are so far removed from birth and because women rarely share their true experiences… maybe because we are unaware… maybe because we are busy with other fights? I’m not sure what the reasons are, but we need to awaken young feminists.

  7. Thank you for reiterating this! Birth is a choice, and it should be a positive choice.

    I gave birth to my first son via induction after a huge argument with my doctor about my LMP; my doctor actually patted me on the head and told me that he knew best!!! My son was born too early, as he was covered in heavy vernix, and he was medically traumatized from 40 hours of labour (as was I).

    My second son was born in the front seat of our car, after being sent home from the hospital because I was “too cheerful to be in labour…” Never mind that it was my 2nd child, that I was cheerful at the thought of finally meeting my son, that I lived 45 minutes away in freezing rain conditions…the doctor had looked at the strip from the machine that he hooked me up to and declared that I wasn’t in labour.

    I have attended the births of many children, and what I noticed most was the complete inattention to the HUMAN needs during birth. Mothers were ignored, called “the patient”, condescended to in many ways “oh, this doesn’t hurt, you’re just being childish…”, or talked over by the nurses and doctor. While I admire and respect doctors and nurses, they are human and they make mistakes. Ask questions, plan for every eventuality, know who your doctor’s replacement might be and meet them, ask for a feminist mother’s recommendation for a hospital/midwife/doula…

    Ladies, learn what you can about birth and the birth process!

    Information is power.

    • I’m loving all the positive comments here! Ness, you’ve really tapped into something that is so vital for women everywhere. Choice is truly the heart of feminism and knowledge is the only path to real choice. As a doula I support many women who make choices that I know I would never make for myself, but I support them 100% because I know they are coming from an informed place. http://www.labourdoula.com

  8. Re: “While not all people who can get pregnant or give birth are women…” I would add “While not all women can get pregnant or give birth,” whether trans women, intersex women or infertile cis women…

  9. The only people who think they’re being pushed into one choice or another are those too lazy to think or research for themselves prior to choosing a care provider.

    I google “giving birth in Edmonton” and there are links from midwifery services and hospitals in equal amounts – each offering lots of information.

    “The key here is that there needs to be a dialogue between the mother and her care provider, rather than a pre-laid medicalized plan that dehumanizes the mother and turns normal birth into a sterile, medicalized event.”

    If a mother has chosen a doctor as her care provider – of course the doctor is going to have a medicalized plan! If she’s chosen a midwife, the plan will be different! It is her choice where she goes – but it is her RESPONSIBILITY to be educated to chose her care provider in line with the type of care she wants.

    You wouldn’t go to a car dealer and ask for information on motor bikes and RVs would you? That is exactly what you seem to be implying medical doctors should do. Home birth doesn’t involve them – so why would you expect them to have more than the most cursor information about it.

    If you have chosen a midwife as a care provider and want her to give you a video tour of the Royal Alex hospital shed probably give you a blank stare – nor be able to tell you the hospital’s breech birth % success rate.

    “Being poked and prodded and examined without being fully informed of the alternative options….”

    For real? When you go to a doctor the doctor ASSUMES you have done your homework already and CHOSEN their bag-o-tricks vs all the other options you have.

    • I feel very uncomfortable even approving this comment because I think it’s victim-blaming and highly inappropriate.

      While women should absolutely take responsibility for their care, many are not given the fundamental opportunity to do so. Women who do not have a firm grasp of English may have a hard time negotiating with their care providers, as well as women who have been treated poorly by care providers and told that their choices are inherently dangerous (such as home birth, when it’s not) may not have the confidence to stand up to the doctors who are giving them these messages. Doctors are intimidating! And many people are simply unaware of their options — be it from lack of education, lack of experience, or what have you. That doesn’t mean they should be taken advantage of by their care providers.

      It’s important to remember that just because it’s simple and easy for YOU to do these things, it doesn’t make it true of everyone.

      As you’ll read in J Garrick’s comment above, doctors are not always honest. And while women can research their choices, when faced with a doctor who is telling you that your choices are putting your baby in danger, you’re probably going to listen — even when that may not necessarily be the truth.

      Women aren’t victims. We are capable of making responsible and informed decisions, but we also live in a society that tells us that things must be done a certain way. It’s HARD to break free of those standards and go against the mold. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by uneducated people that homebirth kills babies. I imagine it’s difficult for a pregnant woman to put up with that with a thick skin and not that those opinions influence her confidence in herself.

      Also, midwives DO often practice in hosptial and are aware of hospital procedures. Though in Ontario breech births can only be performed via cesarean.

      In the future, I welcome friendly and respectful conversations, but if you feel the need to blame women who have opened up about their experiences in my comment thread — please take it elsewhere.

      • I didn’t even read any of the other comments – I was only replying to your article.

        “And many people are simply unaware of their options — be it from lack of education, lack of experience, or what have you. That doesn’t mean they should be taken advantage of by their care providers”

        Again – it is NOT the care providers responsibility to provide options – only educate you about THEIR option.

        Google works in every language – everyone in Canada has access to the internet (except maybe in remote rural locations and even poor people do, its called the library) so there is absolutely no way you can claim these people don’t have the same access I do to educate themselves.

      • OF COURSE it is a person’s responsibility to research their options. But you seem to be under the impression that care providers never bully patients into interventions they don’t want — but in the midst of labour may not have the tools to decline.

        I’ve heard far too many stories of women who plan for drug-free hospital births, and after they’re not progressing at a rate seen as “acceptable”, they are told that the baby is at risk and they should try pitocin, and after pitocin contractions become stronger, they need an epidural to cope. Suddenly, someone who planned a drug-free birth ends up with a slew of intervention (not to mention a higher chance of emergency cesarean). This has nothing to do with them beig irresponsible or not researching their options. It has everything to do with doctors who are impatient and uninterested in creating a personal birth experience for their patients.

        Not to mention that midwifery care — while covered by OHIP — is not readiy available outside of GTA (I’m from northern Ontario where the closest midwife is an hour away). We have a shortage of midwives that causes midwifery care to be inaccessible to many. Does this mean that visiting doctors who push intervention (especially when another care provider is not an option) is the woman’s fault? I think not.

      • I’m glad you agree with me. Your article doesn’t.

        “What’s important is not whether or not women are making “right” or “wrong” choices (according to whom, I don’t know), but rather whether or not they’re making fully informed choices that work in a way that’s best for them”

        Here, your article implies that it is SOMEONE ELSE’S job to make sure the potential mama is fully informed about all their choices or that there is something preventing women from getting fully informed!

      • I don’t see how the quote you pulled implies that at all, but that’s your interpretation of it.

        It IS a doctor’s job to receive informed consent before any/all medical procedures and that’s too often not happening. You seem to be forgetting the immense amount of power that doctors have and how little discretion some doctors take in wielding that authority. Rarely do they inform patients of the alternatives — you can be induced OR you can wait until up to week 43, for instance. For many, it’s INDUCE NOW or your baby will get too big for you to birth vaginally and the choice of waiting it out and letting nature take it’s course is not one they share with their patients (and induction doubles the chance for cesarean — another fact doctors rarely share).

        In an ideal world all women would be educated about birth and intervention, but that’s not what happens. When someone plans their birth to be one way and a doctor decides to change that plan for whatever reason, they may not have all the information they need because it’s not something they were expecting to need to know. Why would a natural birthing mama do thorough research about all POTENTIAL interventions? You also seem to forget that not all women have the time or emotional energy to sit in front of the computer and pour over birth research. They trust their care providers, but too often that trust is exploited and women are unhappy with their birth experiences. Please stop blaming them for that under the guise of “taking responsibility”.

    • Kristen’s comments really saddened me and I’m glad to see so many responses pushing back. As a doula I have been in the room when clients were pushed into unnecessary interventions, told frightening and inaccurate things so that they would go along with their doctor’s plans. These women were well-informed and I was there to remind them of their right to ask questions and encouraged them to do so – I have heard doctors verbally shut down this encouragement (i.e. “There are no questions.”). When a woman is in labour, especially during transition and second stage, she is extremely vulnerable and the potential to frighten even a well-informed mother is high. It may not be a care-provider’s job to make sure they get good prenatal education, but it *is* their job to ensure that any intervention they recommend is only undertaken when there is informed consent. Silence should not equal consent, but it does. A frightened, “um…ok?” should not equal consent, but it does. Believing that it’s a woman’s fault if she has an unwanted and unnecessary intervention pushed onto her during labour is equivalent to blaming a date-rape victim who didn’t say “no” in explicitly forceful terms – we need to blame the bullies, not the bullied. If a care-provider doesn’t have the social skills to see the difference between a woman who is consenting with knowledge and confidence and a woman who is submitting out of fear, they shouldn’t be assisting with births. But they are. And for the record, I am very pro-midwife, but sometimes midwives recommend unnecessary interventions too – the assumption that just because your care provider is a midwife and not a doctor she will therefore let you labour naturally if you want to is false and dangerous. Midwives often recommend AROM, frequent vaginal exams, epidurals and other interventions that their clients may not want and that may not be necessary, for a wide variety of reasons (including impatience). Yes, we need to encourage women and their partners to get good prenatal education – that is the cornerstone of my own practice in fact – but we also need reforms to our maternal care system that encourage women to birth in a supported and calm environment where they are free to ask questions and are not pressured into consenting to someone else’s orders about what should be done to their bodies. If that’s not a feminist issue, I don’t know what is.

      • Thank you for replying Heahter. I think Kristin is very uninformed. I was induced by a doctor without PERMISSION or EVEN BEING TOLD what was happening!!! I feel traumatized and violated still and it was long ago. In fact, this article even made me cry. I am very educated and so I found Kristen’s post very offensive. Anything I voiced during my labour was completely ignored…and even though I was doing fine I was pressured into getting an epidural (it’s kind of hard when its 3 against 1 and you’re in pain). Even writing this is bringing up painful memories.

      • So sorry to hear about your experience, anon, and I’m sorry to have brought up painful memories — you certainly deserved better treatment than you received.

      • If you are in Toronto and you have birth experiences that you want to let go of, or those that you want to celebrate, or even fears/anxieties/hopes/wishes for an upcoming birth or pregnancy, I would encourage you to come out to BirthFire tomorrow night. You can share your story before tossing an object (your story on a slip of paper, or a symbolic item, etc.) into the fire or you can burn your item in silence. You can also come just to support others. For more info visit http://www.BirthFire.ca. We ask that anything that is brought to burn be safe and non-toxic (e.g. no plastics). All are welcome.

      • I too was sorry to hear about your experience anon, I would encourage you to find someone that you can talk to to work through the traumas inflicted upon you. Once you feel that you are able, I would also encourage you to write about your experience and submit your thoughts to a grievance board within the hospital where you gave birth. Perhaps in doing so you might further heal your own wounds while also affecting change for others. Be well and I hope that you find peace.

  10. I’m a 64 year old Australian mother of 4 children, all born in the 1980s in city maternity hospitals.
    Great births.None to plan (it’s as well I did not have much of a plan…)
    Professional background:women’s history (medieval/early modern).
    The conversation above saddens me.
    This is an issue that is meant to unite women (and dare i say it many men…).
    Real choice is dependent on as much information as possible but also on openness to other viewpoints (again dare i say it including men-and noting increasing numbers of women in obstetrics and men in midwifery)
    So far in my opinion (professional and personal) the debate over at least two millenia has far too often been between men knowing best what’s right for women and women knowing best what’s right for (other) women.
    Time (and I believe opportunity) to move out from the barricades.
    Hopefully in time for my 3 year old granddaughter (born in an unplanned hospital birth) who herself ‘plans’ to have 8 children…

  11. After reading this entire thread of comments, I have to disagree with Kristin and completely agree with Ness.

    In my own experience 8 months ago, I was completely informed, I had taken all of the prenatal classes, done my own research, and talked to plenty of other moms about their experiences and suggestions.

    I had chosen to be induced, and 8-10 hours into my labor, I had a senior resident come in to check my progress, she had said that I wasn’t progressing fast enough, that I was only 6cm dilated. My only option next would to have a c-section because there wasn’t enough anmniotic fluid for my baby. I was completely heart broken, as this was my absolute, dead last option for intervention. But I believed her, because she was in charge of the other resident’s, and probably a couple months off from being a full blown OB. And this wasn’t the first time she had brought up something wrong with my labor, pushing a c-section on me.

    Thank goodness the Doctor on call had come to check what the resident had already done, because I was in fact 9 cm, and did not need any sort of intervention that I hadn’t agreed to.

    Another point, I’m not sure where Kristin has gotten all of your information, whether or not you’ve had children, or what ever the case, When I was ready to see an OB, my family doctor recommended me to someone. It wasn’t until I met the OB that I realized I didn’t like her, at the time, I didn’t know that I could request another OB. And that the OB that I did have at the time I delivered, wasn’t in fact the doctor that had delivered my baby. it was the doctor who”s turn it was to be on call. Thankfully she was an amazing woman and I know for my next pregnancy to request her as my OB.

    So in forming MY OWN opinion, which everyone is entitled to, not everyone is absolutely informed going into pregnancy, labor, delivery, and birth until certain situations arise. I know now for my next birth, I want absolutely nothing to do with residents, and I can request that in my birth plan. Birth plan’s can change on a dime, expect the unexpected. And doctor’s have a responsibility to be completely honest with their patients, not push their own beliefs onto vunerable women.

    I love what you’ve written!

    • Thank you for sharing your experience Katie. It will enlighten Kristen, who seems to have an ax to grind, and those like her who take a simplistic view about women’s experience of maternity care, and don’t have any real awareness of how the medical model is stacked against women.

  12. Pingback: Reproductive Justice isn’t just about abortion, and why birth is a vita feminist issue | Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History

  13. In your article just get the so-called rights of the woman she should have discussed. Am I all agree. In your last sentence you speak about that baby deserves so much more suddenly but then you have it also about abortion. Where are the rights than of the baby? It is always about the woman her rights, what with the baby? Is an abortion justified on a baby? That baby has therefore asked? Life is sacred and you must respect it. Kill an unborn child is have little respect for life and is not good to talk. How you also runs and reverses, it is a life of the moment there is a fertilization has occurred.

    • This post is not about abortion or your opinion on it. I’m talking here about babies that are being birthed WILLINGLY by mothers who want them. None of these things supersede the rights of the person who is pregnant.

      If we trust women to know best how/when/where they want to birth, we must also trust them to know best in regards to if/when they want to be pregnant.

      • I completely agree with u. so it should be. It is only regrettable that some accidents are geaborteert while on the other hand, women who would like to swap and years should have wait while directly for a baby. But like you said, article is not about abortion. Just respect for life, both for the woman and the unborn child. Life is so precious. And certainly for the childbirth, how a mother would give birth because that word too little into account.

    • How easily a discussion can be distorted into something about abortion – or is that just a knee jerk reaction to the assertion of women’s reproductive rights? So-called fetal rights often seem to mesmerize those who would restrict women’s rights to determine when and under what circumstances she will consciously, powerfully and peacefully birth new souls into the world.

  14. Pingback: Ness Fraser on “Birth Is A Feminist Issue” ‹ id-tap-that.com

  15. I feel a commonality between birth and abortion is that in both cases the arguments are usually about the baby/fetus. There is rarely concern about what is happening to the mother and how she feels about the process. I have heard so many stories of birth trauma where the dead baby card is used freely and often inaccurately by medical staff to pressure mothers into doing what the medical staff want, regardless of whether it’s the best thing either scientifically or for the mother. Just look at the recent case of Bei Bei Shuai in the US – she attempted suicide while pregnant and is charged with murder and feticide since the baby died – this is an example of an apparent trend in anti-abortion laws being used to punish pregnant women.

  16. Pingback: Birth is a feminist issue. | NessFraser.com | Milk & Magnolias

  17. Post op “male”= still a woman. Love what you got. Unless this is what it takes to circumvent patriarchy. Or how bout stay true and fight the good fight as a sista.

    • Not all people born into “female” bodies are women.. and asking them to live life as a gender they don’t identify with seems pretty messed up.

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  19. Pingback: birth + feminism | eutraphalia

  20. While I disagree with you about giving birth at home, it’s true that there should be more options at the hospital. They aren’t supportive of having birth without drugs (mostly because they don’t want to deal it than anything else) and my wife and I were constantly having to send away student doctors coming to “check” her just because they were told to go around and check like as if her vagina was some sample under a microscope…but I totally disagree about birthing at home. Should something be unexpectedly wrong, mother and baby should not need to wait for an ambulance; rather, options should be made available at the hospital.

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