Woman-Made: How Rethinking Pregnancy and Childbirth Could Undermine Sexism and Honor Women’s Reproductive Rights

“The labor of childbirth has been a form of forced labor. For centuries, most women had no means of preventing conception, and they carried the scriptural penalty of Eve’s curse with them into the birth-chamber.” ~ Adrienne Rich, Of Woman. New York. W.W. Norton & Company, 1986, p.158)

Anti-abortion sentiments are pervasive in American politics. In the November 2014 mid-term election, 53-percent of Tennessee voters passed an amendment stating that the state constitution does not secure or protect “a right to abortion.” Anti-abortion measures in North Dakota and Colorado, though they ultimately failed, garnered support from more than 30-percent of voters. Colorado’s amendment 67 would have established personhood for a fertilized egg, while North Dakota’s measure 1 would have recognized “the inalienable right of life of every human being at any stage of development.” A representative of Personhood USA, Jennifer Mason, contends that despite being significantly outspent, support for the Colorado measure grew by at least 6-points. An August 2014 CBS News Poll reports that 26-percent of the population believe abortion should not be permitted, the highest number since 2005.

People’s positions on abortion are significantly shaped by the framing of the debate. Opposition to abortion is shaped by one or more factors including religious belief, gendered expectations of women to embrace motherhood, definitions of personhood based on biology or future capacities. Support for the option of abortion is generated by framing the issue around individual reproductive liberty, definitions of personhood based on sentience and consciousness, considerations of the socio-economic complexities of motherhood, health risks involved in some pregnancies, and/or freedom from male-dominated societal demands of women.

Feminist author of Pro: Reclaiming Abortion, Katha Pollitt contends that pro-choice supporters’ participation in the negative framing of the abortion debate is harmful to women’s reproductive rights. “The pro-choicers have fallen into the framing that the anti-abortion people use, which is abortion is always a terrible thing, that it’s an agonizing decision. Inadvertently pro-choicers sometimes talk in a way that stigmatizes abortion and the women who have them.”

Yet there is another aspect of the framing of abortion that is often overlooked. Our fundamental beliefs about pregnancy and childbirth shape how we think and feel about reproductive rights including not only what rights birthing women should have but also abortion rights. And these beliefs about pregnancy and childbirth are, for most of us, shaped by an often subtle yet deeply embedded and potent patriarchal worldview. The consequence is that our way of speaking about pregnancy and childbirth is tainted by a language that undermines women’s claim to true reproductive freedom. Viewing embryonic life’s development into a baby as a forgone conclusion, as North Dakota’s measure implies, is in many ways the natural result of the popular way of speaking and thinking.

An open and honest reconsideration of how we think and speak about pregnancy and childbirth should lead to greater respect for the right of women to determine whether or not they wish to create and birth a baby. It should also generate greater respect for the rights of women who decide to forge new life through pregnancy to choose where and how to birth their creations.

Women’s reproductive and maternal agency is denied by our everyday language and popular cultural representations. Again and again women are pushed to the backgrounded sphere of utter otherness, “nature.” Agency and praise for creativity are instead routinely transferred to fathers, doctors, institutions (hospitals), and (almost exclusively male) deities, all of which are historically associated with “culture” and “rationality” as opposed to “nature.”

Feminist cultural theorist Jane Caputi writes that the phrase “I am God” is often stated by actual killers and playacting killers (in video games for instance). “Despite much talk of God being ‘love’ and associated with creation, the phrase ‘I am God’ is not uttered in delivery rooms by mothers….” Quite apart from reverence, pregnancy is routinely relegated to an inferior condition of illness. As Carol Christ has written, “Giving birth is treated as a disease requiring hospitalization, and the woman is viewed as a passive object, anesthetized to ensure her acquiescence to the will of the doctor.”

This irreverent, disrespectful vision of childbirth made it to the front stage of popular culture when in April 2014, former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback, Boomer Esiason publically criticized New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy for missing the baseball season’s first two games in order to be with his wife as she birthed their child. Esiason suggested that Murphy should have encouraged his wife to have a C-section to prevent the scheduling conflict.

“Quite frankly, I would have said C-section before the season starts. I need to be at Opening Day. I’m sorry. This is what makes our money. This is how we’re going to live our life. This is going to give my child every opportunity to be a success in life. I’ll be able to afford any college I want to send my kid to because I’m a baseball player.”

Oddly, Esiason’s comments suggest the player had to go against his career to join his partner. In actuality the Mets gave Murphy permission to join his partner.

Esiason’s statement is significant in that it not only indicates the way in which women are expected to revolve around men as the earth does the sun; it also illustrates how agency and social value are linked to masculine activities such as (professional) athletics while feminine activities such as birthing new life are linked to passivity and a trivialized realm of domesticity. Just consider for a moment that Esiason’s worldview places greater weight on not a season of baseball but the first two games than witnessing one’s partner birth new life; an act that we should objectively acknowledge as sacred. Only a patriarchal worldview could so misunderstand the metaphysical order of the universe.

Patriarchy, Sexism and Childbirth

Such misguided thinking about pregnancy and childbirth has a long history rooted in patriarchal thought. Driven by the presupposition of male superiority, the patriarchal worldview is based upon and perpetuates androcentrism: conceptualizing elite, male identity, interests, experiences, beliefs as the “norm” or “standard” (mythical norm) against which all other perspectives should be judged.

From civilization’s earliest legal codes in Ancient Mesopotamia to Ancient Greek philosophy to Christian theology and Enlightenment rationalists, history is flooded with proof of the ubiquity of patriarchal beliefs and practices. Perhaps the most influential of all Western philosophers, Aristotle articulated the reality of patriarchy and the predominance of androcentrism when he defined family in “Politics” (350 BCE). He wrote: “The family is the association established by nature for the supply of men’s everyday wants…..”

In order to justify male superiority, the patriarchal worldview has long devalued women’s reproductive agency and labor. In The Less Noble Sex Nancy Tuana explains that philosophy, science, and religion have historically defined “woman” as less developed in rationality, morality, and divinity than man “because of her role in reproduction.”

In Generation of Animals (4th century BCE) Aristotle interpreted the female role in procreation as proof of her passivity and powerlessness.

“For there must needs be that which generates and that from which it generates…and in those animals that have these powers separate in two sexes the body and nature of the active and the passive sex must also differ. If, then, the male stands for the effective and active; and the female, considered as female, for the passive, it follows that what the female would contribute to the semen of the male would not be semen, but material for the semen to work upon.”

Ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood wrote that Aristotle conceptualized women’s reproductive agency as

“…an adjunct to or mere condition for real agency, which was claimed for the male reproductive role, the woman being substitutable, merely ‘the nurse’ for the male seed. Aristotle’s age erased women as social and political agents, enabling Aristotle to disappear women’s reproductive agency in his award of the reproductive ownership of the child to the father. Aristotle saw the father as contributing the rational element of form as compared to the mother’s contribution of mere matter.”

The cooptation of reproductive agency is prevalent in androcentric monotheism. In the Old Testament childbirth is conceptualized as a form of punishment for the sin of Eve (Genesis 3:16). The New Testament defends the basis for male supremacy over females through an erroneous yet deeply entreated reversal of ontological origins:

“The head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God. For a man indeed ought not to cover his head for as much as he is the image and glory of God, but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman but the woman of the man. Neither was man created for the woman but the woman for the man” (I Corinthians 11:7-9).

Such an interpretation, widely embraced by early male theologians, preferred to embrace the story of eve’s creation from Adam’s rib, one of the Old Testament’s two conflicting accounts of humanity’s divine origins. In When God was a Woman, Merlin Stone writes

“In a sixteenth-century Church report we read, ‘Woman is more carnal than man: there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed with a bent rib. She is imperfect and thus always deceives. Witchcraft comes from carnal lust. Women are to be chaste and subservient to men.”

These attempts to devalue “woman” are based on linking femininity to what many Western thinkers have held is opposite to reason and culture: nature. Cultural theorist Jane Caputi writes, “Women, of all classes, much like the Earth, are expected to provide generative, sexual, caretaking, and nurturing services on demand and for free” (25). This is starkly clear in the way we understand childbirth, as Val Plumwood makes clear in Feminism and the Mastery of Nature.

“Because reproduction is construed not as a creative act, indeed not the act of an agent at all, it becomes something which is undergone not undertaken, at worst tortured and passive, at best a field for acceptance and resignation. When women’s agency and choice are denied, the female body itself comes to be seen as oppressive, the instrument of an invading nature hostile to human subjecthood and alien to true humanity, a nature which can only be subdued or transcended.”

Such linkages have led ecofeminist thinkers to conclude that remedying gender inequality requires altering human thinking about and relations to the natural world; namely, as Karen Warren writes, re-conceptualizing “ourselves and our relation to the nonhuman natural world in nonpatriarchal ways.”

Patriarchy in the 21st Century

These agency-denying conceptualizations of birthing women continue today, and they have profound implications for women’s reproductive rights. During a debate on October 23, 2012, Tea-party supported Republican Senate candidate, Richard Mourdock, explained that he was opposed to abortion, even in the case of rape: “Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” [1]

Along similar lines, in February 2014, Virginia State Sen., Republican Steve Martin responded to a pro-choice group urging him to change his abortion policies by posting this on Facebook “once a child does exist in your womb, I’m not going to assume a right to kill it just because the child’s host (some refer to them as mothers) doesn’t want it to remain alive.” He later changed “host” to “bearer of the child.” Martin told Huffington Post his remarks had been taken the wrong way and were meant to be sarcastic.

Mourdock and Martin’s remarks dismiss women’s agency and creative role in pregnancy and childbirth. This way of thinking is not new. In addressing God, St. Augustine describes his fetal self as having inhabited his mother’s womb, but having been “created” in the womb by God. [2]

Though his particular choice of words was particularly egregious, the spirit of Sen. Martin’s demeaning language is common place. Popular culture and discourse—from academic articles, news, Hollywood film, to everyday language— routinely convey the belief that babies are merely “housed” or “warmed-up” in women’s bodies.

As discussed in the Journal of American Culture, the latest in birth technology, female mannequin birth simulators, are further entrenching a medical model of childbirth that views women as passive recipients of childbirth— deliverers rather than forgers and birthers of new life. The mannequins simulate the conventional medicalized model of childbirth wherein women are managed by medical professionals and their technological rituals, and viewed as “patients” whom are “treated” and ultimately “delivered” of new life. Birth simulations feature the mannequin mother in bed on her back, connected to an electronic fetal monitor (EFM) and IV flowing with Pitocin. They can also be programed to scream, answer questions, and even have a postpartum hemorrhage. The mannequins are not able, however, to simulate an empowered birthing woman who stands, squats, and births independent of such medical rituals. As the film The Business of Being Born shows, most medical professionals have little to no experience with such an alternative. [3]

A selection of six popular male-focused childbirth guides were each found to regularly use language that left out the mother’s agency when describing “the birth.” These works were filled with statements affirming that the baby had “emerged,” “been born,” “appeared,” and/or “debuted.” And when women were attributed some manner of responsibility for birthing the life they were principally responsible for making, the authors of the birth guides crudely trivialized their role with supposedly comedic statements about women “squirting” or “crapping” babies out.

Popular film and television also contribute to the trivialization of women’s agency during pregnancy and childbirth. Films such as The Back-up Plan, Knocked Up, Baby Mama, and Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 1, along with TV series such as Parenthood, The L Word, Rules of Engagement, and The Secret Life of the American Teenager portray birthing women as victims of childbirth and/or fail to represent women as the creative agents responsible for forming, nurturing and ultimately birthing newborn life. In these works along with many others, women’s creative responsibility for new life is hardly acknowledged. Doctors are often credited with “delivering the baby,” or mother and father are equally congratulated for “the birth.” In contrast to how we portray athletes and warriors, women receive no trophies or medals for making and birthing new life. We do not “honor” or “glorify” women as creators; instead we offer them a secondary form of honor for passively hosting new life.

We too contribute to the dismissiveness of maternal agency. Our everyday communications fail to acknowledge women as the primary makers of new life. Most of us contribute to the diminishment of maternal agency through everyday linguistic norms. For example, consider which of the following sentences one is more likely to hear in the context of a woman’s decision to carry out a pregnancy.

“I’ve decided to have the baby.”

“I’ve decided to have my baby.”

“I’ve decided to birth my baby.”

“I’ve decided to make my baby.”

Typically, we use the word “have” to indicate passivity: “Tomorrow I am going to have surgery, another test, etc.” We are resigned to these things; they are beyond our control/agency. Conversely, words like “get,” “win,” “finish” connote agency, willed action on our part. We do not, for example, speak of great athletes as “having a championship.” We do not say that a “championship has arrived” or “has been won.” Instead we say that Tom Brady and/or the Patriots won the championship. In short we acknowledge the human agency behind the athletic achievement. Yet we speak of babies having “arrived” or being “born” independent of maternal agency. To truly undermine the dignity-denying visions of women and their reproductive lives and choices uttered by the likes of Mourdock and Martin, we need to address the way our own language and broader popular culture provides support for them.

Rethinking Pregnancy Means Rethinking Women and Reproductive Rights

Misunderstanding pregnancy and birth misconstrues our moral and political thinking about abortion. Arguments against abortion tend to take it for granted that embryos automatically become babies. (Some commit the smoke screen fallacy—substituting loaded language in place of the facts—by inaccurately describing abortion as the termination of a “baby” or “child” despite the fact there are important distinctions between embryos, fetuses, and babies or children. Though the distinction between fetus and baby becomes gray late in the pregnancy, it is not gray during the first trimester (first 12 weeks) when 88-percent of abortions occur.[4]

There is little to no recognition of the fact that a pregnant woman is responsible for actually making the baby. Instead many the mental image of a preconceived baby being put into women’s wombs by God and later “released” during birth. This is clear from prominent billboards featuring an imposing male God pointing toward the belly of a passive, compliant pregnant woman. Accompanying the image is the quote, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” As with Aristotle, man is once again primarily responsible for new life. Such a thought process denigrates women’s true role, and fosters illegitimate hostility toward women who choose abortion.

To the point, abortion is not the termination of a baby. Conception is the first step in a 38-40 week process whereby a pregnant woman literally forges the life in question. In most cases, abortion is the termination of a woman’s creative labor, by which she develops an embryo or young fetus into an infant.

Let us also recognize that reproductive rights include not only abortion rights but also birth rights. Just as state restrictions on women’s access to abortion abound, so, too, do restrictions on birth rights. Today just 28 states expressly permit certified professional midwives (CPMs) to offer their services to women. Certified Professional Midwife (CPM), also known as “direct entry midwives,” are autonomous health professionals who are particularly skilled in meeting the needs of women who desire non-medicalized birth environments such as the home or a free-standing birth center. As Catherine Elton explained the situation,

“In the 23 [now 22] states that lack licensing laws, midwife-attended births are illegal, and midwives may be arrested and prosecuted on charges of practicing medicine or nursing without a license. (Unlike CPMs, certified nurse midwives, or CNMs, who are trained nurses, may legally assist home births in any state. But in practice, they rarely do, since most of them work in hospitals).”

CPM are not legally permitted to offer their services to women in states including Nevada, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Georgia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Kansas, North Dakota, and Hawaii.

In Birth Models that Work, Robbie Davis-Floyd contends that, in contrast to the medical model, the midwifery model of care holds that birth is normal and, for the most part, should not be interfered with; body knowledge, intuition, and emotions are not ancillary to technical instruments and knowledge, but rather are principle. Perhaps most important of all, this model of care views “the mother, not the practitioner, is the most significant birthing agent.” This vision of women and childbirth fosters a respect for women that reduces rates of maternal morbidity, “serious disease, disability or physical damage” resulting from birth complications.

The fundamental wrong of such restrictions become clear when one learns that women who birth at hospitals are subjected to significant rates of maternal morbidity compared to home and birth-center births. Available research indicates that women who birth in the hospital are twice as likely to experience third-degree lacerations and three times as likely to experience infections or vaginal lacerations compared to women who birth outside of the hospital.

The importance of women’s birth rights is also clear from the medical system’s normalization of cesarean-section, which account for more than 30-percent of all births in the United States. Despite Esiason’s flippant reference to the procedure, the c-section is a major abdominal surgery. As feminist author Jennifer Block explains in her book, Pushed, cesarean-section entails severing “seven layers of tissue and muscle,” and two to three times the blood loss of a vaginal birth (1000 milliliters compared to 300 to 500). Amnesty International reports that the “risk of death following c-sections is more than three times higher than for vaginal births,” while the CDC relays that the c-section “is associated with higher rates of surgical complications and maternal rehospitalization.”

Many women are traumatized by birth experiences such as c-sections. Nursing scholar Cheryl Beck’s research has led her to conclude between 1.5-percent and 6-percent of mothers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from their birth experience, what she calls “birth trauma.” Women who have c-sections and choose pregnancy and childbirth again are confronted with serious limitations on their birthing options. In nearly 50-percent of hospitals women are denied the choice of having a vaginal birth after cesarean-section (VBAC), either due to hospital policy or obstetrician refusal. Despite these serious consequences, a report by Public Citizen indicates that 1/3 of cesarean sections are unnecessary.

When women are assisted by midwifes, however, the rate of invasive interventions such as the c-section plummet. A 2005 study found that low-risk women birthing in the hospital, compared to low-risk women in a planned homebirth, were five-times as likely to receive a cesarean section (19-percent compared to 3.7-percent) and 15-times more likely to receive an episiotomy (33-percent compared to 2.1-percent).

A Different Vision

In Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, Plumwood argued that when childbirth is conceptualized as pure submission, be it to “nature” or medical professionals and technology, women’s reproductive powers will be a source of patriarchal power. What is needed, she argues, is the rightful re-conceptualization of childbirth as a “project for women.”

“It is only when women are conceived as free agents and choosers with respect to their bodies and as full agents in their reproductive activity that the [body, agency split] is avoided. It is only in such freedom that women’s reproductive life is not distorted.”

To facilitate this shift in consciousness consider Monica Sjoo’s 1968 artwork, “God Giving Birth.” The piece depictsa potent goddess, modeled after a pre-Columbian Mexican goddess, amid a backdrop of dark universe and glowing stars. She is squatting above what is perhaps a planet. Half of her face is colored gray to black and the other half is white. Her lips are full and closed. Her countenance displays concentration and intentionality. Her hands wait at her thighs, preparing to catch the life she is birthing. Most basically the work depicts something that should be obvious yet is so universally obscured: all human life is woman-made.

The time has come to honor the greatness and awe-inspiring character of generating and choosing to birth new life; the time has come to see through a patriarchal haze that warps human relations—with others and the natural world, and fully honor the right of pregnant women to determine how to conduct their pregnancies and, when they choose to carry their pregnancy to term, to honor the divine feminine agency displayed in birthing new life. In so doing we may also get at the ideological roots that nourish pervasive gender inequality.


Jeffrey Nall holds a master’s of liberal studies from Rollins College and a Ph.D. from Florida Atlantic University. He is an adjunct professor at two colleges where he teaches philosophy, critical thinking, and gender studies. Nall is the author of Feminism and the Mastery of Women and Childbirth: an Ecofeminist Examination of the Cultural Maiming and Reclaiming of Maternal Agency During Childbirth (Academica Press, 2014). He can be reached at http://www.jeffreynall.com/


[1] Mourdock for his part deploys what feminist theorist Mary Daly called the false god of explanation: the use of God to explain and even justify events for which human beings and their societies are responsible for. Using God in this manner serves to normalize such conduct since something “good” comes out of something tragic. Even Christians who embrace the theory that God has given human beings free-will should find such remarks troubling, for they imply that God’s goodness is expressed through an act so vile. Mourdock’s full quote reads: “I know there are some who disagree and I respect their point of view but I believe that life begins at conception. The only exception I have to have an abortion is in that case of the life of the mother. I just struggled with it myself for a long time but I came to realize: Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen”

[2] Augustine. The Confessions. Trans. Maria Boulding. New York: Vintage Books, 1998., book IX, p.186.

[3] In her study, Birth as an American Rite of Passage, based on interviews with 100 pregnant women and mothers, and several midwives, nurses, childbirth educators, and obstetricians, medical anthropologist Robbie Davis-Floyd writes that practices involved in medicalized birth, such as “intravenous feeding, electronic monitoring, and episiotomy,” are “rational ritual responses to our technocratic society’s extreme fear of the natural processes on which it still depends for its continued existence.”

[4] More than 50% are obtained within the first 8 weeks. 88% of abortions occur in the first trimester (first 12 weeks). Fewer than 2% occur at 21 weeks or later. Elam-Evans LD, Strauss LT, Herndon J, Parker WY, Whitehead S, Berg CJ. Abortion surveillance-United States, 1999. Morbidity Mortality Weekly Report 2002; 51 (SS09): 1-28. www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5109a1.htm