Monday, April 16, 2007
How can the same person be a pro-choice activist and a birthing-rights advocate devoted to supporting women through childbirth? When I became interested in the rights of pregnant and birthing women in college, I never imagined there was a contradiction between my pro-choice politics and my newfound passion for midwifery. But a few months ago, Lynn Paltrow, executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, clued me into a longstanding divide between the pro-choice and birthing communities. She and her organization put together a groundbreaking conference that attempted to bridge the gap between these two groups, who rarely talk about each other’s issues.
Abortion had never been addressed at the midwifery conferences I had attended, and the issue gets little mention on the websites of the most prominent midwifery and doula organizations. (A doula is a person trained to provide support to women in labor.) Initially these silences led me to believe that birth activists held my pro-choice beliefs, but I recognize now that they are actually a sign of discord. Rather than address what can be a controversial topic (particularly for a movement that includes religious midwives and doulas), most birthing rights advocates choose to avoid the topic of abortion entirely. With a confirmed focus on the pregnant woman and her journey toward birth, such a high value can be placed on motherhood that it becomes difficult to condone practices like abortion. Similarly, within the pro-choice movement, such a large emphasis is placed on the rights of women not to parent that one can forget about the rights of women who choose to parent.
When I was thrust into the world of what I call “birth activism,” I approached the issues with my usual attitude: People who didn’t get it just didn’t have the facts yet. They hadn’t seen what I’d seen or read what I had read about how terrible the current state of childbirth is in the United States, particularly in the hospital setting. The documentary “Born in the USA” plainly demonstrates how much better midwives and out-of-hospital settings are for low-risk births, and how the bureaucratic obstetrics ward contributes to a landslide of unnecessary medical interventions that aren’t good for mothers or children. Childbirth in its current form–attended by an obstetrician in the hospital–has only existed since the 1920s. Before that time, midwifery care in the home was the standard practice. According to author Karla Hay, before 1900 only 5 percent of American births occurred in hospitals. By 2000, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 99 percent of births did.