It's Only Natural?


First published in New Generation, Vol. 2, No. 3, September 1983.

The debate about ‘Natural Childbirth’ has raged for more than 25 years. Yet its resolution seems just as far off as ever. In the article Richard Seel offers some reasons for the lack of progress.

There are many people, especially female birth educators, who know that natural childbirth is best. There are many other people, especially male birth supervisors, who know that natural childbirth is not best. When two sides fail to agree about the value of a basic concept such as natural childbirth, especially after many patient and reasoned arguments, it is probable that they are not really talking about the same thing at all.

In this case the problem obviously centres around the term ‘natural’. Is its meaning clear, or is it perhaps ambiguous? Maybe ‘natural’ means different things to men and to women? It is worth exploring the matter a little further. One useful way of clarifying the meaning of a key concept is to ask what it is not—to ask about its opposite.

So, what is the opposite of ‘natural’? I suspect that most NCT members would answer first of all that the opposite of ‘natural’ is ‘un-natural’. And if this is so then it is immediately clear why they find natural childbirth superior; it is a birth which is not un-natural! For who would want an ‘un-natural’ birth? It smacks of Rosemary’s Baby or of Macduff being “…from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d” so that Macbeth’s destiny will indeed come from a man “... of no woman born”. Yes, you’d definitely have to be a little perverted (a lover of ‘un-natural’ practices) to think that un-natural birth is superior to natural birth.

This, however, is not the end of the matter: there are some people who would agree that the opposite of ‘natural’ is actually ‘cultural’. In this sense the term ‘natural’ is not quite so fine. For it is culture which distinguishes human beings from the other animals:

‘culture’ is to ‘nature’ as ‘human’ is to ‘non-human’.

For instance, it is ‘natural’ to eat food raw, as animals do, using one’s hands and teeth; but it is a sign of our culture that we cook it and use cutlery to help us consume it. Cooking does not usually improve the nutritional properties of a food, but we do it anyway—even though it takes time, trouble and energy.

Culture involves doing more than the simply necessary, transforming the ‘natural’ into something distinctively human. For many people the term ‘culture’ refers especially to the arts and sciences—the highest and finest and least animal-like of all human creations.

Given all this, it is not so surprising that many people feel that birth should be a cultural event rather than simply natural. Animals give birth naturally—but human beings have the ability to transcend the purely animal, turning a natural function into a cultural celebration. There are many people who feel that ‘going back to nature’ is a denial of essential humanity. For them, the term ‘natural’ has connotations of ‘unhuman’ and even ‘inhuman’.

So I have given an answer to the first of my questions. The term ‘natural’ does indeed seem to be ambiguous. Perhaps the natural childbirth debate has been conducted between those who wish for a childbirth that is not un- natural and those who wish for a childbirth that is not un- human. But what of my second question? Is there any evidence to suggest that men and women tend to have different attitudes towards ‘nature’?

The American anthropologist Sherry Ortner wrote an influential article in 1974 in which she argues that women are universally perceived as being closer to the domain of nature than are men. This is especially tied up with their more intimate involvement in the processes of life and birth. The traditional roles of woman as preserver and nurturer of life and man as transformer and manipulator of life spring from an awareness of basic biological differences.

It is also claimed that men are frightened by nature; it is too wild and uncontrollable. Thus men constantly try to ‘tame the wild’ by bringing natural processes into the realm of culture and conscious control. Women, being closer to nature, accept it as essentially benign. Collaboration, rather than control, is their preferred method of dealing with natural process.

Thus men and women may tend to have different attitudes towards the ‘natural’—women identifying with it, and men wishing to ‘domesticate’ it. This clash of ideologies is one of the reasons why the natural childbirth debate continues. It is not merely about the techniques of childbirth, but a conflict between two different ways of viewing the world.

Furthermore, because of the basis of the ideologies involved, the natural childbirth debate is also a battle of the sexes; between those who accuse men of having ‘taken over’ the essentially female act of birth, and those who accuse women of irresponsibly urging their fellows to follow the faddish cults and disregard the advice of experts.

All of this is grossly oversimplified of course. Not all men are against natural childbirth, nor all women in favour. The debate isn’t just about the kind of ideologies I have been describing but also has strong political undertones; with the disputants taking different attitudes towards authority and the distribution of power.

Even at the ideological level the situation is much more complex than I have so far indicated. For instance, ‘natural’ is also the opposite of ‘artificial’ (‘full of natural goodness’, ‘no artificial additives’ etc.). More importantly ‘natural’ is opposed to ‘supernatural’, so that in some respects natural childbirth is to be thought of as divorced from superstition, ritual, and religion.

This isn’t the place to try to work out the way all these conflicting strands interact. My purpose is simply to point out that the natural childbirth debate is not simply about childbirth. Indeed, it isn’t simple at all.


Sherry Ortner 1974, "Is Female To Male As Nature Is To Culture?"  In Woman, Culture, and Society,  Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, eds,  Stanford: Stanford University Press.