Feminists for Drugs

I really liked this article in Salon, which points out that, despite our current Earth Mother ideal of unmedicated births, choosing pain relief drugs during labor can be a profoundly empowering option, and one that we owe to the early feminists.

Suzanne says you have two choices going into labor: Plan for an epidural, or plan for an unmedicated birth, the only difference being that if you take the the second option, you will end up demanding the epidural somewhat later in the process. I think that’s a very funny little quip, and true in many cases, although obviously there are women who do go through birth without medical intervention, which is great: every woman should have as much control as possible over the experience and be able to make her own choices regarding pain medication.

However I do think the Salon author, Nina Shapiro, is right when she suggests that a woman who does not pay at least lip service to the ideal of unmedicated birth can expect to catch some flak, and that there’s something really distasteful and kind of sexist about that, even though the pressure largely comes from other women.

For myself, never having been through this before, I don’t feel I can make a decision beforehand. I’ve heard stories of women who went through childbirth saying the pain was no worse than menstrual cramping, and if my experience is similar, I won’t need drugs. But I won’t hesitate to request an epidural if the pain becomes overwhelming, and I refuse to feel guilty about that.

8 Responses to “Feminists for Drugs”

  • Nina Says:

    If it makes you feel any better, the Earth Mother ideal may be the ideal in some urban centers and swaths of the internet (KOFFmotheringdotcommuneKOFF)… but there’s still many places in the US of A where you will be treated with suspicion, disgust, and outright coercion if you refuse medical interventions, or even say you’re considering it.

    I think the amazing thing here is that there is *no way to win*. It’s almost perfectly symmetrical. You will be criticized if you want drugs, and accused of buying into the patriarchy, you foolish woman, and selfishly choosing your comfort over the wellbeing of your child. You will be criticized if you don’t want drugs, and be accused of foolishly rejecting science, you irrational woman, and selfishly choosing your desire for a certain birth experience over the wellbeing of your child.

    Well hey, since you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t you might as well suit yourself. I reiterate my offer to personally punch anyone who scorns your birthing choices. It’s no one else’s damn business how you choose to expel your child.

  • Dawn Says:

    I was too far into the birthing for an epidural to work so they gave me what was called a “spinal” (probably me mishearing, but you get the idea). This is where they inject right into the back and you have to keep still or they can damage your spinal cord (which says something about the pain that this sounded fine to me!).

    But it was great. The pain just stopped. Altogether. Completely.

    I’ve met people who have managed the natural birth and its worked for them. So, I reckon you choose which you want and feel free to change your mind.

    (I’ve also met the people who think they should be making the decision for you, but they’re not friends of mine)

  • Madeline Says:

    Hi there to Shannon and the others here who know me! Great Salon article–I totally agree. I came across Grantly Dick Read in my readings when I was pregnant and thought he seemed creepy at the time–this confirms it.

    I’ve had both experiences–full-on, birthing tub, chanting-in-Sanskrit natural childbirth and full medical intervention–even though I have had only one child. I labored for 21 hours with no drugs, then had an artificial rupture of membranes, an attempt at vacuum extraction, and a c-section with a spinal (yes, you did hear that term right, Dawn–a spinal goes one layer deeper than an epidural, through the dura that surrounds the spinal cord–it’s quicker than an epidural, but, unlike an epidural, can’t be turned off if needed.)

    So I can speak to both experiences. Natural childbirth can be off-the-charts painful, even if you do everything by the (natural childbirth) book. I know that for some women, it can also be fantastically empowering. And medical intervention can also be fantastic.

    I read a horrible little article in a natural childbirth newsletter after I gave birth. The article was decrying the rise in elective cesareans, and made the argument that “with a cesarean, there is no birth story.” The author juxtaposed paragraphs describing the romanticized story of her own relatively easy natural childbirth with awkwardly written italicized passages describing a c-section entirely in medical terminology (this written by the same author, who had never had a c-section herself).

    But the thing is, a cesarean IS a birth. You feel the baby leaving your body, just a couple of inches above where it would have otherwise, and you have just as much control over the process as you do over natural childbirth, which is to say, essentially none. You see your child’s face for the first time. In our case, since we’d opted not to learn the sex in advance, my husband got to announce the sex, just as in a “regular,” old-fashioned birth. You can nurse your child if you choose to, once you’re out of recovery. And then you take the baby home, and spend the rest of your life raising it… exactly as you would if you’d gone without drugs or surgery. Which is the actual point of all the pregnancy nonsense, right?

  • Nina Says:

    Hallo Madeline! Yes, it’s just stupid to say that there’s ever not a birth story. Someone was born. That’s a story right there. And — although I personally would (if it should ever become an issue) prefer to aim for an unmedicated birth — I also think that elective cesareans are an entirely sane choice.

    I cannot imagine why so many people have so much invested in controlling other people’s birthing decisions. *shakes fist*

    Congratulations, btw.

  • Madeline Says:

    Hi Nina! Thanks for the congratulations. The baby is two now, and she’s a total delight.

    I certainly would have preferred an unmedicated birth, too, and that’s what I was attempting. My own cesarean was not elective. The OB said that if I had kept trying–I pushed for 3 1/2 hours–that my daughter could probably have been born vaginally eventually, though it might have taken another day or more, and she might have ended up being brain-damaged. As it is, she turned out healthy, lively, and,it turns out, smart as a whip. Score one for conventional Western medicine…

    And I don’t mean to say that I’m a big fan, exactly, of the rise in elective cesareans, or of the high c-section rate (over 1/3 of all births and rising) in general. With better childbirth education (for moms, for dads, and for OBs), I’m sure that rate could come down. And I’m sure some women have had elective cesareans for questionable reasons (scheduling convenience…). Then again, I’m sure some women have had abortions for reason I’d personally find questionable, too.

    As with most things, I think (unbiased, complete, non-coercive in any direction) education is the answer. I felt like my hypnobirthing class, in particular, did me a disservice by strongly suggesting that if you just follow the hypnobirthing techniques, anyone can have a peaceful, nearly silent, painless labor like the one in the video they show you. They also give you a tape with affirmations like, “My body knows what to do. My baby knows what to do.” Great in theory, but if things don’t go as you’re hoping, then you’re left with, “My body didn’t know what to do. My baby didn’t know what to do.” As if it’s your own fault, or, worse, the baby’s, for not knowing how to position itself correctly.

    The one decision I think ultimately has much more impact on the mother and the baby than either how you give birth or whether you opt for circumcision is whether you choose to breastfeed. But that’s a whole other topic…

  • shannon Says:

    While the most wild-eyed of the La Leche Leaguers are fairly scary, I am
    totally persuaded that breastfeeding is healthy and desirable. The part
    that boggles my mind is that apparently it’s much harder to do than it would seem. I mean, I would think that “apply baby to boob” would just about cover it, but it looks like there’s actually way more to it than that, and even special equipment required. Makes you wonder how cave people ever managed.

  • Nina Says:

    Two, gosh!

    Yes, the whole existence of birth injuries is part of what makes me feel fairly warm towards elective cesareans. Birthing is not just hard on mother, it’s fairly harrowing for baby, too.

    I guess I have an odd position in that while I personally would like the whole birthing-tub-baby-spinning thing, I have no problem with elective cesareans. What I do have a problem with is unnecessary interventions and avoidable cesareans (unlike yours). I think the cascade of diagnoses and interventions can stack up quickly and intimidatingly.

    I guess it’s not inconsistent. I strongly believe that everyone should be able to choose, and if she chooses to labor for three days (and I know someone who did like that and flipped off everyone who tried to speed up her labor) then she should be able to do that, if there are no sighs of fetal distress. And if someone absolutely doesn’t want to squeeze baby out through her vagina, I personally think she should be able to pay a nice OB to remove him or her. Why the hell not? We have all these nice scalpels. Seriously. The technology is there, why not let women use it freely if that’s what they want?

    Ramble, ramble, I’m having a rambley night. And I will admit that my desire for a (hypothetical) unmedicated birth is largely due to a lust for the whole Righard infant self-attachment thing, whereby the little buggers allegedly wiggle their neotanous way up the mother’s stomach and latch on, unassisted. That would just be cool, and only works after an unmedicated birth. But you know, if it doesn’t happen, I am sure I will find something else to entertain me.

    That’s an interesting (and sad) point about the hypnobirthing stuff. I guess it would ruin their patter to say “my body sometimes knows what to do”.

    The breastfeeding thing is important of course — but, like birthing, you can plan and decide all you want and sometimes the decision is taken out of your hands. I know a couple of people who desperately wanted to breastfeed and just couldn’t for whatever reason.

    Shannnon, my theory is that cave people had tougher nipples. We modern women have soft pink nipples protected by elaborate mammary support systems. If we had ’em hanging out to the open air and brushing against mastadons etc then perhaps the whole apply baby to boob thing would work?

  • Nina Says:

    Cripes, I no type or write real good tonight.

    Pls make all necessary copyedits in your head.

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