For the Love of Wisdom

The logic of iambic half-lines

Why do we praise natural childbirth?

What is it about childbirth that brings out the moralist in us?

We are usually suspicious of pain-mongers. Think of the flinching reaction bringing up a "cutter" ensures. Sure, we are in awe of the guy who cut off his own arm to free himself from being trapped between two rocks. But if we found he had the choice of extricating himself in a painless way, we'd be turned off majorly. What makes childbirth different?

It can't just be potential harm (as yet immeasurable) that could come to the baby from the painkiller, because people who can't recite this concern still admire natural childbirth. Is it that advocates for natural childbirth find the pain what makes it all so thrilling? Where lies the challenge if it doesn't really, really hurt? Where is the triumph in something that just anyone would do?  I don't mind this type of thinking. Find glory where you can. Choosing natural childbirth and having a difficult time with it certainly deserves a status alongside other thrill-seeking behaviors. But like other thrill-seeking behaviors, the choice to have unmedicated childbirth would then have to be carefully relegated to the "optional and not clearly moral" category of behavior.

Unless I am missing something else positive that the pain brings about? One possibility is that it introduces a great and necessary humility. Avoiding human arrogance is important morally, and the pain of childbirth might be considered "natural" because it fixes what is unsuitable about a mother feeling in control of her birth. I agree with other philosophers that humility is the attitude we ought to develop in response to "nature", and I can think of no exception due to context-not that of biochemist, eagle-rehabilitator, or city planner. So I understand that critics of modern medicine's child birthing practices can become worried when they learn of planned c-sections. The fear is that these women are failing to show temerity before nature, failing to recognize its rightful control.

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Unfortunately, in the meantime, the thought of women making their births convenient seems to bring out some pretty dishonorable conjuring. The women accused of having babies in this way are described as vain and horrible. You can tell the accuser is getting some picture in their head, a caricature of someone they never liked. It's childish and cannot be taken seriously. I haven't, however, noticed this kind of public pillorying going on about those who simply take an epidural. These judgments seem gentler and self-inflicted, making them far more interesting.

Some women seem to feel very bad about having caved in and taken the epidural. They frequently blame the doctor, saying she finally insisted. Of course, women feel bad about having c-sections too. If natural childbirth is good because it is natural in the sense of harmonious, we've encountered a bit of a paradox. A "birth plan" would be a bad idea, one on the side of the arrogance that the pain is supposed to correct.

Does it make sense to suggest the pain of childbirth will help us to have better attitudes later? Well, one point against the idea is that our medical care is not delivered in a manner that is very empowering. Patients are not calling the shots like they order up room service. We see the same paradox I just mentioned when we recognize that critics of "medicalized" births typically talk of how they fail to empower the mother.

Or perhaps the worry is actually that mothers who take painkillers are duped by modern medicine into thinking they can't do what they can. Instead of arrogant, what they might be is excessively humble, overly afraid. They may not understand that their bodies are capable of delivering the child without assistance, that they could have the child with no painkillers. 

But does facing the pain of childbirth unabated mitigate this? It didn't in my case. To cut a long argument (the one in the book) short, as in other times of stress that completely exhausted me- there was no moral lesson in the experience or in my survival. We tell ourselves myths about such things, I argue. Our actual ethical development depends on other things, and we might (I do humbly submit) do better to focus on these than to make strange claims about the good of natural pain.

 I got to explore this issue further in "Motherhood: The Birth of Wisdom" edited by Sheila Lintott and given a foreword by Judith Warner. The book is a wonderful accompaniment to the experience of giving birth and having a child. Mothers can't help, I am sure, but to think philosophically about these things. It is about time for a book to address new mothers as thinkers, pondering their condition.

 

 

Jennifer Baker, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston.

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