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A Perfect Birth: The Birth Rights Movement and the Idealization of Birth

In our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge 2017) author Helena Vissing writes as follows:

The Birth Rights Movement
The Birth Rights Movement has expanded with fierce haste over the last decades. With the popularity of parenting philosophies like Attachment Parenting and the home birth movement, birth choices and rights are ubiquitous questions for expecting parents. We are seeing an upsurge of intense advocacy for women’s reproductive rights, especially on the question of birth choices. In the Birth Rights Movement, birth is seen as a decisive moment in a woman’s life, and is viewed as having crucial impact on the baby and the attachment process. Mainstream obstetrics and hospital birth practices are fiercely criticized and understood as oppressive, profit-oriented, and inhumane. The Birth Rights Movement has expanded with fierce haste over the last decades. With the popularity of parenting philosophies like Attachment Parenting and the home birth movement, birth choices and rights are ubiquitous questions for expecting parents. We are seeing an upsurge of intense advocacy for women’s reproductive rights, especially on the question of birth choices. In the Birth Rights Movement, birth is seen as a decisive moment in a woman’s life, and is viewed as having crucial impact on the baby and the attachment process. Mainstream obstetrics and hospital birth practices are fiercely criticized and understood as oppressive, profit-oriented, and inhumane.

I grew up in Denmark, where the midwifery model is integrated in the universal health care system. I therefore never experienced the chasm between mainstream obstetrics and the natural childbirth movement that I encountered after moving to California. I was completing my doctoral studies in clinical psychology when I became pregnant with my first child. Like many women in Los Angeles, I educated myself about pregnancy and childbirth and discovered the vast field of natural childbirth. At the same time, I was specializing in psychoanalysis and motherhood psychology, and I was intrigued by the ideologies and public debates surrounding the Birth Rights Movement. I was and am particularly intrigued by the intensity with which expecting mothers and birth workers express their beliefs in the revolutionary potentials of birth, privately as well as in the public realm. My training in psychoanalytic theory and practice inspired me to delve into the deeper layers of natural childbirth philosophy.

Opposition to the US Obstetric System
The Birth Rights Movement began in the 1970s in opposition to the way the obstetric system in the United States had developed in an industrialized and medicalized direction (Jones, 2012). Interestingly, this rise occurred around the same time of the shift from the biological reductionism that writers like Chodorow (1978) sparked in feminist psychoanalysis, which finally broke with Freud’s one-sex theory and opened up for describing the female in relation to her own body rather than the male’s (Balsam, 2012). According to Jones (2012), the critique of industrialized labor presented in the Birth Rights Movement actually emerged within second wave feminism and inspired feminist thinkers. The new focus on topics like motherhood, reproductive rights, and sexuality that emerged with second wave feminism entailed a critique of the industrialization of birth: the medical system was seen as patriarchal structural oppression (Gaskin, 2011).

A Psychoanalytic Perspective
However, the philosophy of natural childbirth had its own trajectory, and a feminist counter-critique developed, which focuses on the implications of the idealization of natural childbirth (Jones, 2012). Given that psychoanalytic theory has been slow to engage and integrate feminist thinking, it is not surprising that one finds few references to the Birth Rights Movement in the psychoanalytic literature. Nonetheless, I believe that psychoanalytic theory has insights to offer in understanding the movement. In this chapter, I will engage these strands of critique through psychoanalytic thinking. I suggest that the Birth Rights Movement idealizes birth through the use of bio-essentialism and subjective accounts of birth in a way that does not thoroughly embrace the negative intrapsychic aspects, which may reproduce a controlling ideology of female reproduction. The birth experience is prescribed the utmost importance, and all subsequent parenting is seen in light of this philosophy of birth. I will begin by presenting the Birth Rights Movement and its philosophy, and then unfold my analysis and discussion through the feminist and psychoanalytic literature.

References:

Balsam, R.H. (2012). Women’s bodies in psychoanalysis. New York, NY US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group

Chodorow, N. (1978). The Reproduction of mothering: Psychoanalysis and the sociology of gender. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Gaskin, I.M. (2011). Birth matters. A midwife’s manifesta. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Jones, J. C. (2012). Idealized and industrialized labor: Anatomy of a feminist controversy. Hypatia, 27(1), 99 – 117.

A Perfect Birth: The Birth Rights Movement and the Idealization of Birth

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.


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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2019). A Perfect Birth: The Birth Rights Movement and the Idealization of Birth. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 22, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/see-saw-parenting/2019/02/a-perfect-birth-the-birth-rights-movement-and-the-idealization-of-birth/

 

Last updated: 26 Feb 2019
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 26 Feb 2019
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.