Ina May Gaskin on bodily autonomy and birth

In my interview last week with Ina May Gaskin, I couldn’t resist taking the opportunity to ask an extra question for our readers. I asked Ina May what could our readers do to learn more on the topic of bodily autonomy and birth, and she suggested watching the two videos after the jump, of an elephant and chimpanzee giving birth. Apparently we have a lot to learn from these animals!

She said:

We’re so affected by prudery and corporate media that you don’t get to see the reality of birth on television unless you go to YouTube. I’d say type in “The Dramatic Struggle for Life.” There, you’ll see an elephant give birth. Her baby doesn’t breathe spontaneously and she has to resuscitate the baby. That’s powerful to watch. The second I’d recommend is “Chimp Birth Attica Zoo” and there you see a chimpanzee give birth and labors in a position that nobody would ever guess that anyone would take. But, you watch her expertly give birth without any damage to herself with definite calm and perhaps pleasure. You realize when you see these that neither of these mammals are afraid. They’re comfortable with their body and what people will begin to ask is, “What could we learn from this?” They’re not afraid and we’re afraid as a people; we’re terrified of birth. That makes us extremely vulnerable to exploitation. You can make a lot of money off scared women. Birth has been commodified so escaping it is like finding your own wild nature. If you choose to go to a hospital, which I’m not putting down, then I suggest be wild when you’re there and you’ll teach ‘em something!

Dig that.

The Dramatic Struggle for Life

Chimp Birth, Attica Zoo

Join the Conversation

  • BalancingJane

    Haha: “be wild while you’re there.” In my experience, “wild” isn’t that hard to accomplish. I had a med-free hospital birth in a teaching hospital where many of the doctors (and doctors in training) were clearly not used to someone laboring out of the bed. One med student came in to see how things were going and literally hid behind the curtain and called out to me from there. I was laboring through contractions, standing up, and clothed, but he was clearly uncomfortable.

    • Bonnie Norman

      LOL That is awesome. I wish I could have seen that.

      I think it’s so amazing how they instinctively know what to expect and just go with it. Even in an emergency, when baby was not breathing, mom elephant had things she could try to help the situation. There is of course a time and a place for medical intervention, but not every time and place of birth requires it, or benefits from it. Obstetrics is one of the only medical specialties that consistently does things that hurt a patient rather than help. Episiotomies are a good example. There is no evidence-based benefit to routinely performing them, yet many women get them as a standard form of care.

  • Ropty

    What? People are not elephants nor are we chimpanzees. You can argue about home births being fine, but saying that an elephant or chimp giving birth is easy and therefor a woman giving birth should be easy is just wrong.

    • liv79

      I’m confused- are we not mammals also? Is birth not as completely natural for humans as it is for other mammals? Only humans create fear and anxiety about things that should come perfectly naturally to us, if those things can be commodified and packaged and then sold as necessary.

      • Seisy

        Yes, we’re mammals, but that’s a pretty broad category and doesn’t really mean much. I mean, look at babies They’re a lot more helpless- and for longer- than most mammals’ young.

        As I understand it, childbirth is risky business for women because of the size of modern humans’ heads….well, that and something about a narrower pelvis being part of the package of walking upright.

      • Ropty

        Really? Just because something is natural does not mean it is good for people. Women dying during childbirth is natural, as is dying from an infection.

        Being a mammal means that we give birth to live young and have hair and feed our babies milk. Being a human means that we have a babies with large heads that can cause problems during birth. Human babies take up to a year to learn how to walk. Horses are mammals, and baby horses walk nearly from the moment they some out. Being a mammal has nothing to do with it.

        Also natural? Chimpanzee infanticide.

        • Hari B

          Ropty–you seem to labor under the same misinformation about human birth that is prevalent in our culture. That misinformation has been purposefully been spread by a profiteering, power hungry and misogynist medical system that does not want us to understand or trust birth. Maternal death, infection, or real issues stemming from the size of our babies’ heads during or following childbirth is extremely rare in reasonably healthy womyn. Being a mammal really does have everything to do with birth’s highly effective design and functioning. Complications, for the most part, can be traced directly to either inadequate maternal health or the interference with birth by obstetricians. Yes, there are ‘misfires of the plan’ occasionally–but much less commonly than we are led to believe…at least, those misfires (deaths or injuries from birth) that arise strictly NATURALLY (in otherwise healthy womyn), are far less frequent than the issues that arise as a result of interference or poor health. If you are interested in the truth about human birth, you might want to do some reading–there is now a great deal of very good information available on the topic. No one but the med/pharm complex benefits from the medicalization of childbirth, the great majority of the time….and conversely, no one suffers bad consequences of medicalized birth as personally and often as mothers and their babies. Yes, upon occasion medical help can save a life in birth–just not nearly as often as the med system would have us believe.

        • liv79

          That makes exactly zero sense. So because human babies have big heads, we should fear birth and avoid it? I think a main point of the post was that we have turned birth into a scary medical situation that always needs to be managed and solved by trained medical professionals instead of trusting women (those who don’t experience complications) to experience birth without invasive procedures they don’t need. Elephants and chimps were just an example. I’m just saying I refuse to belive birth needs to be as vilified and institutionalized as it currently is, and I think it’s strange that an elephant knows more about how to resuscitate it’s young than an average sentient human female.

      • Hari B

        Yes, we are mammals. Our sentience does not make us more than mammals….but unfortunately, our socialization can make us less than mammals when it comes to birth. At least, in the sense that many womyn have lost contact with themselves as creatures, do not trust their bodies or birth, and believe so fully that birth must be managed…that ‘doctors (or midwives) deliver babies’. But in fact, only a mother delivers the baby–the helpers just catch that baby as it is delivered! Birth is not necessarily meant to be easy–it is hard work at least, and painful for some. But it can indeed be about as easy for us as for any other mammal, the great majority of the time.

      • Laurence de Bruxelles

        Um, we are mammals, but biologically childbirth is very different in humans to any other mammal, even close primates like chimpanzees. Because humans stand upright, and have significantly larger brains, the birth canal is a lot more twisted and complex and narrower, causing childbirth in humans to be more dangerous and more painful.

        Obviously, there are some things like episiotomies which are shown by evidence to be less harm than help, and a lot more research in women’s health and what’s best/least painful/safest for those giving birth and the child, but comparisons to other animals could be misleading here.

        Unfortunately, as this is a women’s health issue it has of course been neglected, so full studies are few on far between. The ones Wikipedia cites say it results in higher mortality rates, the ones google brings up say it results in lower mortality rates.

        • Laurence de Bruxelles

          Argh, sorry, forgot to proofread

          Um, we are mammals, but biologically childbirth is very different in humans to any other mammal, even close primates like chimpanzees. Because humans stand upright, and have significantly larger brains, the birth canal is a lot more twisted and complex and narrower, causing childbirth in humans to be more dangerous and more painful.

          Obviously, there are some things like episiotomies which are shown by evidence to be more harm than help, and a lot more research in women’s health and what’s best/least painful/safest for those giving birth and the child is needed, but comparisons to other animals could be misleading here.

          Unfortunately, as this is a women’s health issue it has of course been neglected, so full studies are few and far between. The ones Wikipedia cites say unassisted childbirth results in higher mortality rates, the ones google brings up say it results in lower mortality rates.

  • Stella

    As someone who had a medication and intervention-free homebirth, for most people (and I would assume, animals) birth is not easy or discomfort free. That does not mean that it is necessarily dangerous or horrible. Birth can be both dangerous and horrible if something goes wrong. A birth that involves a lot of discomfort (as mine did) can still be a fantastic experience. Women should be able to choose how and where to give birth.

    Of course as humans we have developed surgucal techniques and drugs that stop hemorrage and infection that animals do not have. No one is arguing that those lifesaving things should be unavailable to all birthing women. However, those life-saving interventions can be deployed in a way that is minimally disruptive to the conditions that scientific research (yes, including on animals) has shown is conducive to the production of the hormones that make the birth process go smoothly. So, for example, we know that bright lights and frequent vaginal exams by strangers during labor set off adrenaline and slow birth down, typically without any proven benefits. In this, we are like animals. Just because we are not EXACTLY like them does not mean we should not use this valuable information to improve birth outcomes and experiences.

    The medical industry tends to give us this “all or nothing”, “my way or the highway” dicotomy — come to my hospital, labor with an unnecessary IV and be deprived of food and water under bright lights with strangers bothering you at all hours of the day and night under an artificial deadline — all non-evidence-based practices—or else be accused or arguing that people are the same as animals. That is a ridiculous attitude.

    A woman laboring at home within 30 minutes or less of a hospital accompanied by a trained midwife, or in a hospital or birth center designed to create a calm and woman/baby-centered environment, CAN have the best of both worlds (or she can choose a medical-style or other-style birth if she wants one). That is what we need to demand for ourselves as feminist birthing women — not false dichotomies.

    • Seisy

      I am very sympathetic to the view that women should be better supported, better treated, and be made to have and feel more control when it comes to childbirth. I’m definitely sympathetic to the idea of helping women take back more of the power in the dynamic.

      I just feel frustrated by the implication ( not intentional, I’m sure) that fear or pain or wanting a doctor is something that is just ladies’ own damn fault for not going all primal and trusting nature, silly, when in fact there are very, very good reasons that childbirth may be painful and frightening and risky, and that it’s a perfectly rational and valid reaction.

      I also think that what we need is MORE medicine in this field, more research in exactly how to make it as easy and safe and trauma-free as humanly possible. But like so many of women’s health issues, it never really seems to draw the focus and energy you’d expect.

  • Bell

    By all means, let’s start having births at home in our dirty tubs all by ourselves- let’s see how many babies survive, and how many women too.

    Please, let’s be realistic: in the days before giving birth in hospitals was commonplace, many many MANY women died in childbed, and most babies born wouldn’t reach adulthood. A woman has a right to have the “birthing experience” she desires, and if she wants to hear ocean sounds and bounce around in a big rubbery ball according to the latest fad, it’s all nice as long as she remembers that she’s taking a huge risk with the life of her child and her own.

    Have we lost knowledge about our own bodies in such situations? Yes, of course. Back in the day midwives were all over the place, young girls helped out their moms when they were in labour, young women had probably seen a dozen births by the time it was their turn. Humans were a lot more exposed to both death and birth. We’ve lost part of that experience and folklore. but that’s what it was: folklore. It’s nice and interesting as long as you have scientific knowledge and professionals at hand.

  • L.K. Lowe

    I deeply appreciate the more open-minded view shown by Ms. Gaskin towards women who choose hospital births in these comments.

    However, I also agree with the previous commenters who point out that humans are neither elephants nor chimpanzees; we have a greater encephalization quotient (a fancy way of saying that our heads are bigger with respect to our bodies), and we’re bipedal. Both factors impact our childbirth dramatically. Even if you do accept that the example of other mammals is valid wrt. humans, showing only the successful births doesn’t give a complete picture. I’ve seen a cat give birth who clearly was in pain from the experience, to the degree that she almost killed her first kitten; mares in the wild (and, for that matter, sometimes even with a vet in attendance) sometimes die in foaling.
    Be sure to have a veterinarian on standby just in case things go wrong. Foaling involves risks many are blissfully unaware of when booking that stallion. An improper position and the power of the contractions can result in a foal’s foot penetrating through the birth canal into the rectum, a dangerous situation for mare and foal that needs immediate attention. Malpositioned foals can die without immediate help. Mares can rupture after foaling and quickly bleed to death. While mares have foaled for thousands of years many have died for that long also.
    (Incidentally of interest:,-Not-Women)

    On the other hand, echidnas (still mammals) lay eggs, and kangaroos (also mammals) easily give birth to joeys the size of a human thumb.

    a comparison between human and chimp pelvis morphology:

  • Hari B

    The thing that some posters seem quite unaware of when it comes to the size of our babies heads: first, the skull plates and all the little bones of the face of birthing babes are not yet fused. This gives their heads a great capacity to shift, to mold to mom’s pelvis as it passes through. Further, womyn’s pelves are composed of 4 separate bones held together with cartilage joints. That cartilage softens as a result of hormones of pregnancy, so that the pelvic bones, normally held fairly rigidly in position, can also shift in response to baby’s shape. The pelvic outlet can open by as much as 40% during birth to accomodate the baby’s good sized head. At least, it can do so if a womyn is ambulatory during labor, rather than anesthetized from the waist down or for other reasons prevented from moving during labor. Our large heads and upright positions are simply not ordinarily obstacles to birth, for our bodies (moms and babies both) are designed to accomodate our arrangement of posture that differs from quadripeds.

    Also, babies are not inert lumps merely being shoved by the force of contractions through the birth canal. Reasonably healthy babies have a great degree of muscle tone and responsiveness to their environments–they can and do work their way through that relatively winding pelvic path, they are actively responsive to the shape of the bony pelvis as they encounter it, able to help make the turns that must be made on the way out. Further, when womyn are conscious and ambulatory, and supported in feeling their way through labor, they are well able to move and shift in a kind of coordination with baby’s descent, thus aiding descent (for themselves and babies). So, the ‘twisty path’ of womyn’s pelves ALSO is not, by nature, an obstacle to birth. Birth, when not hindered by misinformed and overbearing managers, when supported fully, is truly a kind of dance between mother and baby that both actively participate in necessary ways.

    True cases of ‘cephalo pelvic disproportion’ (CPD)–where baby’s head really just can’t mold enough, and mom’s pelvis really can’t open enough–are extremely rare. I have seen even tiny womyn give birth to large babies (9-10lbs), often without any trouble at all. Of course, “CPD” is often called in the hospital as a reason to impose a csection on a mom who doesn’t know any better. But if you watch ICAN’s gorgeous slide show about womyn giving birth vaginally after a cesarian birth for CPD, you can see a different story. Most of the womyn in that show birthed naturally, babies even larger than the one delivered surgically–because those womyn were well supported in labor to eat, drink, move and otherwise give birth under their own power and instincts rather than dominated by a misogynist med system that scarcely ever seens ‘normal birth’ at all.

    The reason that medicine so rarely sees truly normal birth is because they impose their ‘pathology think’ upon it, and thus take numerous ignorant actions to prevent normal birth, and cause numerous problems for womyn and babies.

    There is a place for medical rescue at a small minority of births. But modern obstetrics has not, in general, improved upon birth’s design. It has only introduced a large variety of new risks to womyn and babies.

    • L.K. Lowe

      Well, that was more than a bit condescending. Yes, there are adaptations that make childbirth possible most of the time. No, that does not mean that it’s valid to compare us to chimpanzees or other animals when it comes to childbirth.

  • jana wernor

    We are mammals, but there are differences. This is why women need the freedom to move in labor.

  • Amy Tuteur, MD

    There is nothing feminist about ignoring science and unfortunately, that is what Ms. Gaskin persists in doing.

    It is a scientific fact that childbirth is inherently dangerous. That’s not surprising to those who know the science of reproduction, because human reproduction, like nearly all animal reproduction, has a tremendous amount of wastage.

    We’ve all seen nature shows about sea turtles who lay hundreds of eggs, with the result that only a few baby turtles survive the treacherous walk across the beach to the safety of the ocean. Adult salmon die in the process of reproducing.

    Human reproduction is no different. Every woman is born with millions of ova that will never be ovulated. Every man creates billions of sperm that will never fertilize an egg. Even when conception does occur, the miscarriage rate is high. The miscarriage rate for established pregnancies is 20%. That means that 1 in 5 embryos will die during pregnancy. Why should we be surprised that childbirth also has a high wastage rate?

    Giving birth is and has always been inherently dangerous. For example, human childbirth has a natural maternal mortality rate of 1%. To put a 1% maternal mortality rate in perspective, if the maternal mortality rate in the US were still 1%, approximately 45,000 women would die in childbirth each year. That’s the same as the number of women who currently die of breast cancer each year.

    What’s really amazing to consider is that the chance of the baby dying was always dramatically higher. The natural rate of neonatal death is approximately 7%.

    The only reason that childbirth seems safe to us now is that in the past 70-80 years, modern obstetrics has lowered the neonatal mortality rate 90% and the maternal mortality rate 99%.

    How has that been accomplished? It’s not, as homebirth advocates like to claim, because of improved sanitation. The great public health improvements in sanitation occurred in the late 1800’s, but the childbirth related mortality rates did not begin to drop until the 1930s.

    What is responsible for the massive drop in mortality rates? Antibiotics, blood banking, more C-sections, improved anesthesia, better care for premature newborns, etc. It has nothing to do with “knowing how to give birth” or “trusting birth” or “reducing fear of birth.” It is a direct results of the liberal use of childbirth interventions.

    There is simply no question that the ONLY places with low maternal and neonatal mortality rates are places where modern obstetrics is practiced. It never happens anywhere else.

    It is a tremendous disservice to women to ignore the scientific facts about childbirth and it is a tremendous betrayal of feminism to pretend that ignoring scientific facts is the path to greater autonomy.

    • Hari B

      The above commentary is a beautiful example of the kind of empty, myth-based, paternalistic bull that actual obstetricians speak to womyn in their offices every day.

      “human childbirth has a natural maternal mortality rate of 1%. ” What exactly does this mean? “natural maternal mortality rate”? Natural to what, when and where? I imagine that ‘natural’ would actually mean, in the time before modern civilization…which was a time we have no records for…which means this statistic is entirely invented by someone holding up an MD certificate to cover the lie she is telling about this.

      On the other hand, does she refer to the period of relatively recent history–in urban areas after the rise of the industrial revolution, when conditions of womyn’s lives were fairly dreadful in most ways, due to conditions imposed by excessively polluted cities, awful work sites, lack of refrigeration to keep food fresh and very poor diets in general, open sewage in the streets? In that case, I can well imagine a maternal mortality rate of 1%. But I certainly couldn’t call this ‘natural conditions’ that might produce a ‘natural maternal mortality rate’.

      I like this one too: “It is a scientific fact that childbirth is inherently dangerous. That’s not surprising to those who know the science of reproduction, because human reproduction, like nearly all animal reproduction, has a tremendous amount of wastage.” If you hadn’t noticed, there is a clever linking of ideas here that actually have almost nothing to do with each other. We are told childbirth in ‘inherently dangerous’ and also that ‘human reproduction…has a tremendous amount of wastage’…we are told these things as if they are one and the same, but they are not.

      It is in fact true, as she later states, that the great majority of womyn’s ova are never utilized, yep, totally true. It is also true that upon conception, miscarriages occur in a goodly amount, most often due to misfires of the genetic plan in the fertilized egg; the fetus is not viable, and is released. These 2 things do amount to what can be called ‘waste’ in our reproductive systems–and yes, it is very like what happens for other animals because yes, we are indeed animals.

      However, neither of these things adds up to ‘childbirth is inherently dangerous’–by placing truth right next to this lie, the author attempts to trick us into believing her her whole deceptive, fallacious spiel. And then scolds any who fail to adhere to scientific truth!

      I won’t bother to address the rest of her ridiculously biased and groundless comments, which we are all supposed to believe because she’s a doctor–even though she has no current experience with birth and no experience with homebirth at all. I will just say again, by all means, do the research, and make the choice that feels rightest to yourself. But in order to get the facts about birth’s risks, you might want to find far more honest and rational sources than Ms Tuteur is able to provide. .

      • Hari B

        By the way–again, birth has risk, just like the rest of life has risk. That is just life. There is nowhere on Earth that you can give birth, and no kind of care available, that can give a mother/baby any guarantee of safety.

        Also, I can almost sympathize with any doctor who manages hospital births, and comes to believe that ‘birth is inherently dangerous’. This is because doctors work with womyn from all walks of life and with all kinds of lifestyles. Womyn with very poor diets or in an abusive relationship; womyn who get no exercise, are exposed to environmental toxins or who abuse drugs–all kinds of things which do increase the risks of birth. However, what most doctors do not realize is that these problems are not ‘inherent to birth’–they are inherent to poor health habits, abuse, pollution, etc. Unfortunately, they tend to extrapolate too much, failing to see the science of birth anymore.

        Human population could not possibly have become as large as it is, if birth were ‘inherently dangerous’. A rational, science-based perspective of birth includes the awareness that birth, like all of life, has risks. But to say that it is ‘inherently dangerous’ is well-overshooting the mark–and is what we homebirth supporters like to call ‘fear-mongering’. No one is served so well by womyn’s fear of birth, as the med/pharm complex that makes 100s of millions every year (if not more) off the unfounded fear of birth that leads womyn to give birth in hospitals–where many risks of birth are greatly compounded for mothers and babies both, by the very technology and pre-emptive management style which is supposed to ‘save us’.

      • L.K. Lowe

        This is basically one big ad-hominem.

        • L.K. Lowe

          Wrt. human population growth: populations will grow if each woman has more than an average of two children who survive to reproduce on their own. With an average failure rate of 7% for newborns and 1% for mothers, that means that the average woman with no care will see about 9 successful pregnancies out of 10: more than enough for the population to grow exponentially.

          • Cihan

            Your argument might hold some water, if infants were able to reproduce. But as it is, you forget to incorporate the idea of childhood mortality. Perinatal mortality bears no reflection on childhood mortality rates. If you look at the mortality rates for people below the age of sexual maturity “in the wild” as it were, it’s far higher than 9%. Nice try, but no cigar.

          • Hari B

            Cihan–not sure who you are addressing with your post, which makes it hard to know what you mean. Also not sure where you get a stat of 9%, nor what you mean by ‘in the wild’. Can you clarify? thx

          • Cihan

            The comment was in response to the post directly above mine, and the 9 was a typo that was supposed to read 7, which was the number that is used, which is originally brought up by Dr. Amy above.

            That individual was attempting to say something about population growth which was nonsensical, as one can not predict how populations will grow solely based on infant survival rates. My “in the wild” statement was in reference to the notion that 7% is the *natural* neonatal death rate, natural as in the death rate without intervention or modern techniques. My cat, living indoors, may have a lifespan close to 20 years, but in its natural state without intervention, its effective lifespan in the wild is obviously shorter.

            Unlike you, I’m not of the opinion that Dr. Amy just makes things up willy nilly. I can’t say I always agree with her personal opinion on issues, but she does not post bunk research.

            Despite what you claim Hari, Dr. Amy doesn’t advocate for fewer choices for women. If you want to be all up in the NCB wagon, I don’t think she cares. If you want to birth at home and make pictures with your placenta, I think she remains unfazed. Her primary contention is with the NCB-proposed premise that birth is inherently safe (it isn’t), and also with the idea that the natural state of things is the best path to well being. Spreading these spurious ideas as truth misleads uninformed individuals into making choices they may not have made otherwise. If one is aware of the inherent risk from something like home birth, and still chooses to do so, that’s in their right to pursue.

          • Hari B

            Cihan–thanks for clarifying.

            I think you don’t really understand Tuteur at all, if you can say things like “she does not post bunk research”, “she remains unfazed” about homebirth, as long as it’s sufficiently informed. But, you are welcome to your opinion, I won’t waste time rounding up her endless stream of lies, distortions, her hate- and fear- mongering words from her various web-pages, nor the numerous instances of her use of ‘research’ which has been debunked soundly by research analysts from well-respected places such as the Cochrane Database.

            I think you also don’t understand the NCB movement if you believe it has a premise that “birth is inherently safe”–at least, if you think we mean birth is “perfectly safe, has no naturally occurring risks, always the best choice for every womyn”. And certainly not if you think that anyone in the NCB movement wishes for any pregnant womyn to make decisions founded in ‘spurious ideas’. Remember, just disagreeing with an idea does not make it ‘spurious’ on its face.

            The issue for womyn/families in making birth choices does not actually lie in promoting their understanding that birth has risks–after all, we live in a culture that deeply believes and widely teaches that “birth is inherently risky/dangerous”. What womyn can reach pregnancy without being thoroughly soaked in this attitude? The issue lies much more in promoting their understanding the ways that medicalization of birth has INCREASED overall risks of pregnancy and birth for womyn and babies. The issue lies in promoting understanding of the naturally occurring risks along with all the real/physiological as well as psycho-emotional BENEFITS of NCB. The importance of NCB movement work lies also in teaching how/when medical care might actually be more beneficial than NCB for individual moms, and how/when medical care actually increases risks for various kinds of harm with NO benefit whatever to moms/babies.

          • L.K. Lowe

            @ Cihan: So, 10 pregnancies (no birth control), 9 infants, and 4 kids surviving to adulthood (>50% childhood mortality) still = 2X population replacement.

  • Amy Tuteur, MD

    Gaskin’s philosophy on childbirth is not only not feminist, it is deeply misogynistic. Why? Because one of the most important principles of feminism is women’s right to control their own reproduction.

    Like many misogynists, Gaskin argues that women can only achieve their full potential by rejecting any technological impediment to reproduction. These misogynists oppose contraception and abortion because they interfere with the biological determined role of women: reproducing continually regardless of whether they want additional children, or whether additional pregnancies threaten their own health.

    It is not a coincidence that Grantly Dick-Read, the father of natural childbirth philosophy was a sexist who opposed any efforts by women to obtain political, economic or educational autonomy. And it is not a coincidence that Ina May Gaskin the wife of a cult leader who controls every aspect of life on The Farm (which is the cult commune), leaving only midwifery to Ina May. The philosophy of both individuals is grounded in the belief that women can achieve their fulfillment only by rejecting any technology that modifies reproduction.

    Claiming that a hegemonic patriarchy has stolen birth from women by introducing technology is no different from claiming that a hegemonic patriarchy has stolen reproduction from women through the techology of birth control and safe abortion. Claiming that women should reject technology in childbirth (pain relief in particular) because elephants and chimpanzees don’t use it is no different from claiming that women should reject birth control and abortion because elephants and chimpanzees don’t use it.

    Controlling the pain of childbirth with epidurals is every bit as feminist as controlling the spacing of children (or even choosing not to have children) with technological methods of birth control. There is nothing feminist about Ina May Gaskin’s exhortation for women to surrender themselves to the pain of childbirth because that’s what other animals do.

    • L.K. Lowe

      Having met (and been close friends with) a member of Ms. Gaskin’s immediate family, I have to disagree with you both that Gaskin is misogynist and that the Farm is a cult. Gaskin’s feminism isn’t the same as mine, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not feminism. The Farm is a commune, not a cult; the two are not synonymous.

      I agree with you completely on the science (If I ever have kids, I’m getting an epidural asap!), but that was a little bit over the line.

    • Hari B

      Once again, Tuteur tries to sound smart and reasonable but her ‘facts’ are so non-factual that she fails utterly. She so grossly misrepresents Gaskin, her beliefs and goals, and even the construction of The Farm as a community, that one has to wonder who the hell she is even talking about or whether she ever bothered to read Ina May’s work (or call The Farm to get some facts). All the while, as ever, she embeds just a few kernels of truth to support her distortions and outright lies….Oh my, you are simply going to have to learn to do better than this!

      Do you even realize how vastly you condescend to womyn? Do you really fail to see how clearly you demonstrate your belief that we are too ignorant to read the research for ourselves and make our own wise decisions–and how you display your deep belief that womyn are so weak and gullible that we need you to save us from ourselves, even if that means you resort to making shit up about all this???

      It is certainly ‘feminist’ to make one’s own choices in birth and all health care. It is certainly ‘misogynist’ for anyone to control any womyn’s choices in birth and health care. Yet another kernel of truth can be scented amongst the…rest!

      What is not the least bit feminist is to reject what childbirth is by nature, on behalf of freeing oneself from pain or inconvenience *without having all the facts at hand*. Sure, consider the epidural or the elective surgical birth on behalf of your freedom to choose. Just don’t let yourself do so without knowing the whole picture: the risks, even unto longterm damage, and quite often in terms of interference with your own and baby’s recovery from birth and your bonding together, that arises from the epidural. Just know that a cesarian triples your risk of death during or following that surgery from complications of it (compared to vag birth, with or without epidural). Know too, that your cesarian puts both you and your future babies at risk, even unto death, of complications arising from the existence of a uterine scar.

      Sidebar: I’ve had 5 homebirths and one csec. I’m glad surgery was available, because in my case, unlike so many, it really was necessary and I chose it myself even before my OB felt it was ‘emergent’ (but I was right, it was needed and was glad to have chosen it BEFORE my baby crashed). No one need feel ashamed of needful medical intervention–and we might all be glad of it for ourselves or friends someday. This fact in no way impacts the reality that for most, vaginal birth is not only possible, but is desirable for mother and baby both, for health reasons.


      Because in our certainly misogynist, not to forget controlling, power hungry, greedy and liability-shy medical system, you will NOT be told all of these facts willingly. You will also NOT be told of all the very real benefits to womyn and babies, both long and short term, of giving birth naturally (no meds), wherever you do it. So childbirth hurts at least a little for most (but not all) womyn, and so it hurts a LOT for some–so? It is one day (give or take) of pain that can be managed quite well through various natural, non-invasive, completely harmless methods for womyn and their babies. Parenting itself from birth onward, certainly requires a helluva lot more patience, endurance, and sacrifice than that one day. And it must be pointed out too, that for the vast majority of womyn, adequate understanding and preparation for birth, along with adequate physical and emotional support during birth, goes a very long way toward making birth less painful, and even enjoyable, powerful and satisfying, even if also painful in greater or lesser degree.

      It is the misogyny of people like Tuteur, who try to be so clever in cloaking their misogyny (and just plain ignorance of birth) in kernels of truth surrounded by lies, that womyn must be wary of. Sheesh, you’d think if she was the womyn-loving, feminism-supporting “MD” she claims to be, she’d be doing everything in her power to understand what can support the safest possible homebirth, would be fighting WITHIN the medical system to see midwifery and homebirth fully supported. And that, instead of stalking obsessively people like Ina May and every forum that supports homebirth, she’d be exhorting womyn to fully understand birth and all the options available to us. Because that is how a Dr can express real feminism, that is, real love and support for womyn, our power and our very best, healthiest lives.

      JMO, of course :D

      • L.K. Lowe

        I think that Dr.Amy was wrong to call Ms.Gasking misogynist, and I think that you’re wrong to call her misogynist. You disagree with each other; isn’t that enough, without demonizing one another?

  • L.K. Lowe

    I do think that well-trained midwives can help greatly, if the alternative is no care at all (ie, Afghanistan).

  • natasha

    I was born via emergency c-section; I would not be here today without it. I don’t know enough about home birth vs. hospital birth to say that one is inherently safer with most women. But, I’m a little uncomfortable with the tone of this post. Even as Gaskin says she isn’t against hospital birth, she’s pointed out here and on the Feministing Five interview, that we are not beneath animals. Of course, I agree with that, but the way it’s being said comes across as shaming to me. It’s like, birth is so natural, and it’s perfectly fine to realize that it’s good and safe and normal. It paints a difficult or complicated birth as something exotic, like she can’t even wrap her mind around why that would occur in childbirth. It’s kind of like, oh you need medical intervention? What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you give birth in the good, normal, and safe way? It’s only natural.

    My mom had this kind of stuff said to her after what happened with my birth. People shamed her in this exact way, and they mentioned animals giving birth in the wild. It really hurt her, and made her feel defective as a woman because she didn’t give birth naturally. My case may be rare, but it happens, and I think the tone of this discussion is isolating to people like me and my mother.

    • BalancingJane

      I was also born by emergency c-section and likely would not be alive to type this without medical advances. The knowledge of my mother’s traumatic birth experience was one of the reasons I wanted to give birth in a hospital. But I wanted a drug-free birth experience without interventions unless they were necessary, and it was VERY hard to get in the hospital. Just as you said it feels like shaming to be told that women should be able to give birth without interventions, I felt shamed for wanting to try. And it was very insulting to hear over and over again how my body was going to fail. How I wouldn’t be strong enough to handle the pain. How my baby was too big. How my body was too weak. (All of this without any medical indications of complications). They were wrong, and my birth experience was amazing, but I had to fight just to get the chance to show that my body could do it.

      I understand your claim that this argument can seem like shaming, and I think that’s very wrong. There’s nothing wrong with choosing medical interventions in a birth and there’s certainly nothing wrong with needing them–I’m glad that they’re available to women who do.

      But these hurt feelings and polarized arguments keep taking us away from the main point–women should have the CHOICE to birth with autonomy and respect regardless of where and how they do it. If we grant the point that Amy Tuteur makes above (that it’s misogynistic to claim that women have to birth without medical interventions), then the corollary is also true: her claim that birth is “inherently dangerous” and that women SHOULD use medical intervention is equally limiting and misogynistic.

      • natasha

        I don’t believe these hurt feelings are beside the point. They are a part of this entire discussion. If we want people to have the choice of how to give birth, we have to let them make those choices without shaming.

        • BalancingJane

          I’m not saying they’re beside the point, and I’m sorry if it seemed that way. It hurt me to feel shamed, too, and I don’t want to belittle that for anyone else.

          I just see so often that that’s as far as these conversations get. It becomes so polarized that we don’t talk about the commonalities that we all have, most importantly the right to be treated with respect and autonomy when we give birth.

    • Seisy

      Very, very, very well said. My feelings exactly.

  • Hari B

    LK–while I respect your opinions as your own, I ask that you please stop reiterating the stats put forth by a previous poster. Those numbers are apropos of nothing meaningful. We were not told what historical circumstances they were drawn from, if any– or were just invented by someone with a disturbed, distorted and intentionally distorting perspective of homebirth, whose only purpose is to promote womyn’s fear of childbirth and homebirth especially. Let’s try to keep the discussion more rationally and factually based, eh?

    I do take your point on population growth, although again the statistical foundation you employ is essentially mythological. Since I don’t have any better stats to employ to refute you, maybe we can just agree to disagree on the point about population. I take your point–and do see that my point may not hold water…I’ll have to think about it :)

  • L.K. Lowe

    Sooo, last night we got another unsuccessful homebirth: a stillborn baby at 12 days postdate, and a hemorrhaging mother two hours out from the nearest hospital with a blood bank (us). The Ob-Gyn was pulling clots out of her as big as both of my fists together, as she tried to detach a retained placenta. The woman mentioned a hospital delivery next time; the husband didn’t want to think about a ‘next time’ so recently after losing a son; another guy (friend? relative? pastor?) tried to convince them that they’d ‘get over it’ and change their minds on both counts, after they got over the shock.
    I really, really do not fucking understand this.
    I could still smell the blood on myself after I got home from work (anyone who says ‘blood has no smell’ has never been in a room with quarts of it on the floor).

    • Amy Tuteur, MD

      The latest statistics from the CDC (available on the CDC Wonder website) show that PLANNED homebirth with a non-nurse midwife has a neonatal death rate more than 7 TIMES HIGHER than comarable risk hospital birth.

      Gaskin’s own organization, the Midwives Alliance of North Amercia (MANA), has collected a databse of 24,000 planned homebirths. When they were collecting the data they promised their members it would be used to demonstrate that homebirth is safe. Once they analyzed it, they changed their mind. MANA refuses to release their own death rates!

      When the state of Oregon formally requested the data to evaluate homebirth in Oregon, Melissa Cheyney, the head of the Board of Direct Entry Midwifery in Oregon, publicly acknowledged that they will not release the data because it might result in disciplinary action against midwives.

      The data publicly available through the Oregon Board of Direct Entry Midwifery shows that complaints were made about at least 19 deaths in Oregon in the past 10 years. The translates to a death rate more than 4 TIMES HIGHER than comparable risk hospital birth.

      • L.K. Lowe

        This was a planned homebirth, but I don’t think there was any midwife present. I think they were more of a ‘pray and trust in god’ family.