Women Face Birth Oppression World Wide

Sticking a hospital in a town and then calling it choice, as you systematically stamp out midwifery, close birth centres, and report freebirthers to child protective services is NOT providing choice.

Women Face Birth Oppression World Wide

Today there will be millions of births. Throughout many of them there will be the silent presence of oppression. For many it will be unnoticed, for others it will be something they are acutely aware of but still unable to name, but not knowing about, or being able to voice it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Birth is arguably the greatest oppression modern women face. Women in poor countries are oppressed by the lack of access to health care, and women in wealthy countries are oppressed by the overzealous misuse of obstetric interventions, and denial of true choice.

To truly understand oppression we must first delve into the true nature of CHOICE

A choice is not something women make in some kind of vortex as they ride bareback on a wave of feminism, because not all choices are equal. True choices are made by free will, when there is access to many options. Oppression is present when choices are made out of social obligation, lack of information, and controlled or limited options.

In order to make a true choice – the sort of choice that our feminist great grandmothers had in mind when they championed feminism – we need all the information, free from bias, and we need all the options, free from pressure. The only thing that should limit the choices of pregnant and birthing women is HEALTH. Not money, not laws, and not family or social pressure.

Some might say that it’s impossible to make a free choice in our society because of the unwritten social laws, and that is a very valid point. It’s one that women should consider when they are making decisions about birth place and care provider.

Am I making this choice because it is the only available one? – NOT A CHOICE – OPPRESSION

Am I making this choice because its just what people in my family / community do – NOT A CHOICE – OPPRESSION**

A well known blog piece on choice, the author, Elkballet describes choice in these terms:

“A free choice is whether I want chocolate or strawberry ice cream. Being given two options, one that will be difficult and one that will be easy, is not free will since most people will choose the easier way.  It would be like saying, you can choose the chocolate or the strawberry, but if you choose the chocolate you will be punched in the face”

This is what birth choices look like around the world. Except it’s not so simple as chocolate vs strawberry, for many women it is chocolate vs chocolate. If a woman has no access to a birth centre so she chooses between two hospitals, is she really making a choice? How can we continue believing that we are liberated when one of the most fundamentally female acts we will ever perform – birth – is governed by the laws of patriarchy?

How are MEN in charge of birth?

Lawmakers and obstetricians are predominantly male. Take a look at the governing medical board where you live. How many of them are women. Now imagine them all going to the male politicians and telling them what maternity care should entail.

These male dominated systems are what feminists refer to as PATRIARCHY

If we consulted women about what they wanted for birth we would see that some would like hospitals, some would like birth centres, some would like homebirthing midwifery, and some would like good back up for freebirth. Sticking a hospital in a town and then calling it choice, as you systematically stamp out midwifery, close birth centres, and report freebirthers to child protective services is NOT providing choice, it is LIMITING choice and by limiting choice, you oppress women.

It’s at this point that someone invariably interjects with  “But my local politician is a woman” or  “The head of the health department here is a woman”. And that may well be the case, however, the women who work within those systems are not there in their capacity as women, they are there to represent either the law, or the medical establishment. Thus, “men” as a class of citizens are controlling birth. Not individual men, not individual women, but powerful lobby groups made up by MOSTLY men.

Although midwives are sometimes consulted in the determining of birth choices, midwives are once again a profession with their own interests, and as such are unable to speak on behalf of pregnant women.

When women are not consulted in the provision of birth services,  institutions dominate the conversation and whilst they may perceive themselves as making sound decisions on behalf of women, our birth statistics show otherwise. This is not to suggest that surgeons, politicians, and midwives should not be present at discussions, only that women should be the bulk of the presence, because any laws, guidelines, or protocols that relate to birth are worn by women, not by professionals or institutions.

  • Surgeons must come to recognise that they are employed to care for us, they are employed to make decisions on our behalf, their role is to uphold the bodily integrity of each women – whether they like the choices she makes or not.
  • Politicians must stop heeding the words of obstetric lobby groups, and instead listen to the women whose votes keep them employed, the women whose lives are altered by the laws they create.
  • Families must stand back and be truly supportive of a woman’s decisions for birth because the law (despite its many failings with regard to maternity) clearly states that women have complete bodily integrity and decisional capacity for all matters concerning their health.

Until pregnant women have the final say about how their individual births will occur, women remain oppressed. As long as the options for birth are determined by anything other than health and personal preference, the safety of women and babies is under threat, and the best way to see the truth of this is to examine the birth statistics from around the world. Women and babies who live in countries with more choices, have far better outcomes those those who live within limitations, be their financial or patriarchal.

Woman holds baby in poverty stricken Malawi.
A 15 year old girl and her baby in Malawi.
Credit: Lindsay Mgbor | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0.

Oppression is When:

  • The venue for birth or care provider a woman accesses is determined by other people. It could be her husband or family, or it could be the government and medical body.
  • The way the woman gives birth in is not determined by her, when she adopts a position that suits her care providers.
  • Food and drink are withheld.
  • She is coerced into things she does not want or need. It is not a choice when she is afraid to say no.
  • When hospital policy is not clearly identified and women believe that they must submit to them

Choice is When:

  • A woman can trust that everybody in her community from her family to her care providers, to the people who oversee the availability of options for birthing women, are providing her with unbiased information, and options that are based on individual health and preference.
  • Women have access to water immersion – whether they choose to use it or not, they can move freely, their surroundings are comfortable and afford privacy and dignity.
  • The woman can eat or drink if she feels the need.
  • When she is given all the information necessary to make decisions and that information is not given in a way that pressures or unduly influences her to choose one particular option.
  • When hospital policy is clearly explained as optional


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