Women as Parts: Reproductive Rights Include Labor and Birth

Women and pregnant people are in the process of re-learning that their reproductive rights not only cover their right to not be pregnant and to say no to sex, but extends through pregnancy, labor and birth. We shouldn’t have to explain this, but we’re not just body parts to be managed. I say “re-learned” because American culture is just now coming around to body autonomy during sex – the #MeToo movement took this long. And obstetric culture and the culture of American maternity care has completely erased several generations of memories of body autonomy in the birth room.

It’s strange to me that reproductive justice and bodily autonomy aren’t just assumed throughout a woman’s life as they are in a man’s.

Women have been fighting in the U.S. and around the world for millennia for the right to be seen as humans: We are women and we are human. We deserve human rights and body autonomy.

Globally, women have been objectified for so long that our culture at-large passively accepts that women should be expected to hand over their bodies to OBs and midwives, the so-called “experts” of our bodies.

In the U.S., we’re groomed from a young age to hand our bodies over. Once we think about having sex we might go to an obstetrician or gynecologist or OB-Gyn, a surgeon, to request hormonal birth control pills. In our 20s, teens, or younger.

We look to these experts to manage our reproductive lives, because we’re told that’s what “responsible” women do.

“Listen to your doctor” and “do what your doctor tells you to do” and the doctor knows best “because of science” many women proclaim as mantras on social media like The Bump. The great irony, of course, is that so much of obstetrics practiced today is not based on evidence, science, or research. A lot of it is cultural, and woefully misogynistic, and sometimes just mythical and contraindicated, like using a fetal heart monitoring machine for an entire labor.

We are groomed so early to rely on these experts that when pregnancy comes around, we look outward for these strangers to tell us how we should manage our bodies. And of course, as paid experts, they are delighted to tell us what to do, in excruciating but misguided detail. Don’t eat turkey meat because of Listeria. But never mind that most Listeria cases are from fresh fruit and spinach. Continue to eat those. Or, don’t ride horseback, but never mind about driving with your seat too close to the steering wheel and your seatbelt not adjusted for your growing uterus and baby. We mysteriously don’t have guidelines for that.

And when we’re in labor: Don’t eat. Lie down. Calm down. Good girl.

Women in our country have had to fight so hard for so long just for some basic human rights, that we’ve clearly become used to being denied others.

We’ve focused hard on trying to get our governments and the men we interact with on a daily basis to recognize rape and sexual assault as problems. Not with us, but with the people raping us. With our culture that has allowed many a college man to think having sex with an intoxicated or asleep woman is his right and free game and her fault. Hell, we’ve had to convince our grandmothers and mothers of this.

We’ve fought hard for the right to not be pregnant when we don’t want to be, from birth control pills to abortion. We had to fight for birth control pills to prevent pregnancy. We had to fight for the right to say no to our husbands when we didn’t want to have sex, up through the 1970’s. We had to fight for Plan B to be sold in stores. We had to fight to own property and earn income independently of men.

The energy that we’ve expended just explaining basic human rights and needs has been exhausting.

We have been blamed and gaslit for so long, that we have to ask permission for people not to touch us when we don’t want to be touched.

In 2020, we’re still trying to get others to understand, even women themselves, who’ve long internalized misogyny.

So in that context, it seems like a really big favor to ask our culture to recognize rape or assault during labor and birth. To see it as wrong. To see that even during pregnancy and labor and delivery, we still own our bodies.

That just because we paid these strangers to assist us in a “safer birth” doesn’t mean they are now in charge of us; just as when we get married, we are not under the rule of our husbands sexual desires.

We are not objects. We are not pawns. We are real, live human beings with needs and desires of our own.

And when we become pregnant, we don’t give up those rights. There is nothing we have signed that says, now you are merely the vessel for this baby and must act accordingly. We are not shells or homes or dumping grounds. We are people, just like men. Yet, not uncommonly, women are treated as vessels during pregnancy and in labor and birth.

Strangers go out of their way to inappropriately police us on caffeine or a glass of wine or a bike ride. They feel entitled to insert themselves and their opinion into our private, intimate lives.

OBs police us, too. You can’t just have sex with whomever you want. Don’t wait too long to get pregnant. Condoms are okay to use, but you have to use them correctly. This is about your baby, now. Don’t you care about your baby? These are condescending comments I’ve heard from OBs – all after 2005. It’s like we’re living in just a few shades lighter of The Handmaid’s Tale sometimes.

And the biggest policing of all – you need to have your baby here, in our hospital, under our supervision and management, or we will drop your care. You need to have your baby the way I say – in the position I say, within the time window I say and that is best for me, by the means I say.

We answer to our OBs and sometimes even midwives, the way we were expected to answer to our husbands not long ago.

We have to see this for what this is: an inappropriate amount of power that obstetrics and gynecology have assumed over us. Our body autonomy is being held hostage by self-proclaimed gate keepers. Horrifyingly, some women are championing it with cries to “Listen to your doctor no matter what” and “if something happened to your baby because you didn’t listen to your doctor it would be your fault.” Just as we’ve heard women in our lives – even OBs and Labor & Delivery nurses themselves – imply we shouldn’t have sex if we don’t want to get pregnant. Or if we have sex we need to “suffer consequences” like birth and having children. Just like we heard each other staunchly back up men in the cry that if we didn’t want to be raped, we shouldn’t have worn that dress or gone to that party. It’s all the same.

But this is just the next battle in a series of fights for our body autonomy. Another plea to the patriarchy. More energy spent illuminating basic objective truths: women are not just people when men want us to be. We are always human. When we are virgins. When we are having sex. When we are desired. When we are undesired. When we are in labor and while giving birth and when we are mothers and grandmothers. We are not just parts to be used.

Published by sectionmama

I write about American maternity care, sexism, pregnancy, birth, and motherhood.

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