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The myth of choice: some ways of giving birth aren’t “more feminist” than others

Childbirth is just one of the areas in which modern-day feminist beliefs can end up being appropriated by neoliberal and neoconservative agendas. Unless accompanied by structural change, “choice” is too often only meaningful for a small elite.

New-born babies in a hospital in India. Photo: Getty
Too often, we get stuck in the circular politics of “any choice as long as it’s this one”. Photo: Getty

Occasionally the new feminism can feel exactly like the old sexism. Whenever this happens, the easiest thing to do is blame yourself. You are behind the times. You are immature. You haven’t caught on to the fact that what looks like sexism is now empowerment. You just can’t handle the truth because the new feminism is so counter-cultural – so totally “out there” – it would fry your tiny brain.

I find this happens to me a lot. There are so many things which seem not very feminist at all and yet it turns out they’re totally liberating. You just have to develop the correct mindset. If you’ve not yet reached this sublime state of being, then you just have to try harder.

Take childbirth, for instance. A century ago, first-wave feminists were campaigning for the use of pain relief during labour. It was, to quote Alison Phipps, “part of a broader fight to free women from the dominion of biology”. Fast-forward a hundred years, however, and it turns out that a drug-free labour is more liberating after all, as an act of resistance against “the pathologisation of women’s natural reproductive capacities”.

You’d be forgiven for thinking this means we’d come full circle. Nevertheless, this time it’s different. Labour might still be painful but this time we have agency. This time we are in control of our bodies. This time we don’t need drugs. Why? Because we’re educated women making empowered choices. Because we’ve realised that the problem was all in our heads.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with this modern understanding of reproductive realities. Even so, I’ve rarely had the nerve to admit it. I don’t want to seem dismissive of those who do feel empowered by childbirth. I don’t want to appear prudish and mistrustful of the female body. I don’t want to look like a pro-capitalist, materialistic sell-out and if medicalisation is now the mainstream, then surely natural childbirth really is the radical, liberating alternative. And yet it all feels rather odd. To put it bluntly, giving birth in agony or feeling a failure for having an epidural or caesarean does not seem very radical or liberating to me. On the contrary, the current insistence that it is – accompanied by flippant dismissals of those who are “too push to push” – strikes me as conservative and puritanical. I don’t think there is an easy way to give birth so why are we pretending that such a thing can, by sheer force of will, be within every woman’s grasp?

In The Politics of the Body, Phipps explores the ways in which modern-day feminist beliefs intersect with and may even be appropriated by neoliberal and neoconservative agendas. Childbirth is one of several areas of discussion, which also include breastfeeding, sex work, violence against women and the wearing of the veil. What many of these areas have in common is the way in which current feminist debate is focused not on structural support or political change, but on individual choice (albeit not without the intimation that there can be a “wrong” choice, such as having an elective caesarean or deciding to formula feed). It’s a focus which has, to my mind, allowed inequality in through the back door. As Phipps observes, “choice is to a large extent a function of privilege”. It’s all very well to tell women they are not victims of punters, male colleagues or the medical establishment, but unless you change the material conditions in which women make choices, choice will only be meaningful for a small elite. 

With childbirth and breastfeeding there is, Phipps notes, a telling disjuncture between the counter-cultural, egalitarian image promoted by middle-class campaigners and the statistics showing who benefits and who may, potentially, be harmed:

[…] although birth and breastfeeding activists have a tendency to present themselves as counter-cultural, and identify themselves with global Others in their appropriation of ‘traditional’ practices, there is little attention paid to the stigmatizing effect this might have on our own social Others, the working-class and minority ethnic women who may choose birth interventions or infant formula for a variety of structural reasons.

While the birthing practices of global Others are uncritically fetishised, promoting an image of “natural” birth as inclusive, little is being done to support women who are socially excluded and for whom birth interventions are more commonplace. Furthermore, the belief that breastfeeding uptake is purely a matter of education rather than one of enacting structural change (for instance, by encouraging workplaces to provide greater flexibility) places the responsibility on the individual woman. She is expected to think her way to her own empowerment. It is every woman for herself.

Phipps identifies a link between pro-breastfeeding rhetoric and “the neoliberal privatisation of responsibility: it is now a woman’s duty to build a better baby through breastfeeding and her fault if her child develops allergies, infections or other conditions such as obesity”. It is not that breastfeeding should not be supported, but the pressure placed on women is unjust. It becomes a means of letting all external social factors off the hook. You could have had a healthy child if you’d breastfed. You could have had an intervention-free labour if you’d educated yourself. That which at first seems empowering – it’s all in your hands! – turns out to be a burden.

I gave birth without pain relief and breastfed both of my children. I write this in the interests of full disclosure and yet it feels like a boast. Perhaps it is. I don’t want to feel proud and superior yet some small part of me does.  Without wishing to I’ve bought into circular politics of “any choice as long as it’s this one”. Even so, I don’t rationally believe one way of giving birth or feeding your child is inherently “more feminist” than another. On the contrary, I believe that as feminists we need to move beyond fetishising individual choice so that we may question the external conditions which shape our personal decisions.

Right now we treat choice as an end in itself, yet the choices we have regarding our bodies will always be finite. We will get old. We will die. In the interim, our bodies will not always do what we ask of them. We can view this as “failure” or we can view it as being human. We can enact change, but only if we are brave enough to recognise the limits of our own flesh. We can do better than perform intellectual contortions, remarketing the same old sexism as bright, shiny, vacuous liberation.