Medicalization of Desire: Childbirth Edition

When we received the presentation by Merrill Durham, certified birth doula, I was astounded at how medicalization of desire is so prevalent in all of our lives. Given the fact that our class has a majority of women, and that many of us will consider the possibility of children in our future, it was amazing to me how truly educational her presentation was. For me personally, I found myself believing the media portrayals of birth as dangerous, gross, fast, and something to be afraid of. Mrs. Durham’s presentation was my first exposure given in a positive light to what is considered an ‘alternative’ way of giving birth

That is to say that in our society, medicalization of women’s desire has gone far enough to give natural, home births the stigma of being unsafe, out of the ordinary, and detrimental to the health of the baby and mother. In fact, birth is inherently none of these things, and media portrayal of it as such only perpetuates the idea that birth is something women should fear, or only endure for the sake of the result – a baby. The truth is that our current medical system disempowers women, and facilitates the idea that a woman is simply a ‘vessel’ for the child once she becomes pregnant. The way the medical system regards giving birth as a completely physiological process is upsetting, given the fact that birth is a natural, very much emotional process.

The medicalization of desire also takes place with women in the case of the elusive ‘female orgasm.’ In the same way that women are prescribed medication which will supposedly increase their ability to have an orgasm, women who have no risk factors are often induced into labor, placing stress on the fetus, and starting the hospital’s “clock” with regards to how long the mother can wait before she must give birth. Medicalization of desire is also historically prevalent in our society in regards to transgendered individuals. Although the classification of “gender dysphoria” has now been removed from the American Psychological Association’s list of mental disorders. In the case of both the female orgasm and the medicalization of childbirth, it is the medical system stands to benefit from their increased medicalization. As Mrs. Durham said in her presentation, a woman going to the hospital to give birth is treated as if she was sick – given a gown, checked in, pricked with an IV and made to lie down on a bed, even if labor has not yet begun for her. So this is to say that in both cases, treating otherwise natural processes as problems that need to be fixed benefits only the medical community, with its increased costs and time required for treatment, but what about the women if affects? Do they really stand to benefit from such a system, as is implied? As a quick reminder, the average vaginal delivery in a hospital costs around $20,000; the average C-section costs $30,000; the average home birth only a fraction of that – $3,500.

In popular culture, as I’ve mentioned before, birth is portrayed as a painful, terrible experience that women put themselves through for the end result. In the popular TV show, Friends, Rachel has a baby and experiences extreme pain and birth as a lengthy process. In fact, in the video included at the beginning of this post, Rachel squeezes her boyfriend Ross’s hand so hard that he actually falls down and hits his head. In common media fashion, a joke is then made when Ross hurts his head while his girlfriend lies on the table in obvious extreme pain. Even this small joke, however, stands to reinforce the common belief that childbirth is one of the most painful experiences a woman can have. In this clip, Rachel is crying, begging for it to stop, and even asks her boyfriend if he can ‘do it for her.’ Again we see a discourse which serves as a cycle – if we see a woman crying, screaming, and in unimaginable pain, we will seek doctors for ourselves when we experience the same thing.

Media portrayal of birth is often the only exposure we have to the process of childbirth, unless it is in a biology classroom. In truth, the main problem with the way birth is shown in media is that it is seen as an event rather than a process. An event which results in a baby has an ultimate end goal, but a process implies interaction between the mother, her body, and the baby. In this case, the media simply reflects the dominant discourse regarding childbirth, that a woman’s body serves as a vessel for the child to inhabit, and which must be extracted once it is ready to be born.

Home births have inherent risks because the lack of a medical facility in case of emergency complications, but provide incalculable benefits to both the mother and the baby in terms of providing for a natural delivery. Trained midwives are aware of these risks and do their best to reduce these to the mother, often only accepting women who are considered low risk. If you or your significant other were pregnant, would you consider having a home birth? Why or why not? Did the presentation given by Mrs. Durham change your opinion of childbirth? Do you think women would be more open to having a non-hospitalized birth if they received the same presentation we did in class? What ideas were given in Mrs. Durham’s presentation that you think would have the most effect on a mother considering a non-hospitalized birth for their child?

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