In her volume A Womb of Her Own (Routledge, 2017) Author Helena Vissingwrites as follows:
Despite the influences of the Birth Rights Movement over the past decades, we continue to see a significant increase in the medicalization of childbirth as evidenced by increasing Caesarean section rates (Jones, 2012; Malacrida & Boulton, 2014). Activists in the Birth Rights Movement believe that the issue of human rights in birth is threatened to a degree that is ultimately destructive for humankind.
In an editorial from Midwifery Today, founder Jan Tritten states:
“As we all know, nearly all mother-baby human rights are being egregiously violated around the entire world in the pregnancy and birth process, the time miracles should be happening” (2010, p. 5).
Childbirth as a Political Matter
Birthrights and the natural childbirth philosophy are one side in a belligerent ideological fight with the established obstetric system. In the backdrop of decades of oppression of women’s birth choices, birth becomes a matter of victory or failure in the Birth Rights Movement. A woman’s individual desires and struggles to achieve her reproductive goals become political matters. If a woman perceives her birth experience negatively because her plans and wishes for the birth were changed or hindered, she may regard it as “failed.”
The birth experience holds the potential for victory, both on a personal and a political level. I assert that the idealization of birth is an illusory solution to the intense boundary challenge of reproduction. On the individual level, it serves to protect against anxieties about the body. On a cultural level, this defense fuels the ideological fight.
When the rightness of birth choices is debated in a heated atmosphere, it happens at the expense of maternal subjectivity and emotional integration. Mothers’ subjective experiences of their reproductive rights are used as testimonies in current discourses on birth rights and thereby become underpinnings in an ideological debate (Vissing, 2014).
Birth Rights and Maternal Subjectivity
In the tension between the Birth Rights Movement and mainstream obstetrics, a woman’s reproductive rights and choices become highly charged political issues at the expense of her personal agency, subjectivity, and autonomy. Paradoxically, the current developments of the Birth Rights Movement have reproduced a culture where women’s reproductive capacities are still political and ideological issues at the expense of individual rights.
In this chapter, I will examine what happens with birthrights advocacy when birth and women’s reproductive capacities are idealized. Can the Birth Rights Movement advocate for women’s reproductive rights without idealizing birth and throwing maternal subjectivity out with the bathwater?
The Idealization of Birth
The idea that a completely wondrous, ecstatic, and fulfilling birth experience is not only possible but the truer nature of the female body’s capacities is the message in Orgasmic Birth. From a psychoanalytic perspective, this libidinal focus is intriguing and calls for exploration. For instance, less ideal birth experiences are attributed to hospital obstetrics and lack of a caring and sensually attuning atmosphere for the mother. Birth in and of itself is considered orgasmic in nature if only the true nature of birth is invited and accommodated for.
Along with this idealization of birth, we see signs of splitting. Death and the destructive aspects of birth are denied through an exclusive focus on the sensual, gratifying, and fulfilling aspects of birth. Women’s ambivalence and negative feelings about birth are not integrated but attributed to an external influence such as obstetrics and hospital maternal healthcare.
Insights from psychoanalysis may offer a deeper understanding of the issues at play when there is idealization and splitting in relation to childbirth. We also see developments in feminist psychoanalysis that agree with the focus on sensuality and erotic empowerment in relation to childbirth, for example, writings by Balsam (2012) and Holmes (2008), who emphasize the interplay between female psychological developments, the reproductive function of women, and the destructive feelings related to childbirth. Their writings are based on the assumption that the female body and female psychological development are inseparable.
Balsam, R.H. (2012). Women’s bodies in psychoanalysis. New York, NY US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group
Holmes, L. (2008). The internal triangle. New theories of female development. New York: Jason Aronson.
Jones, J. C. (2012). Idealized and industrialized labor: Anatomy of a feminist controversy. Hypatia, 27(1), 99 – 117.
Malacrida, C. & Boulton, T. (2014). The best-laid plans? Women’s choices, expectations, and experiences in childbirth. Health, 18(1), 41 – 59.
Tritten, J. (2010). Birth is a human rights issue: A movement. Midwifery Today, 96, 5 – 36.
Vissing, H. (2014). The ideal mother fantasy and its protective function. In L. Ennis (Ed.),
Intensive mothering: The cultural contradictions of modern motherhood (104-114). Toronto: Demeter Press.