Gender Expectations: Natural Bodies and Natural Births in the New Midwifery in Canada

Abstract

In this article, I examine the meaning of natural bodies and natural births in contemporary midwifery in Canada and explore the impact of these central concepts on the embodied experiences of pregnant and birthing women. The ideal of a natural birth has been used as a successful rhetorical strategy in scholarly and popular feminist works on childbirth to counter and critique the predominant biomedical or “technocratic” model of the pregnant and birthing body as inherently problematic and potentially dangerous to the fetus. Contemporary Canadian midwifery—which only as recently as 1994 made a historic transition from a grassroots social movement to a full profession within the public health care system—continues to work discursively through the idiom of nature to affect women’s knowledge and experience of their bodies and selves in pregnancy and birth. However, my key finding in this ethnographic study, which focused primarily on midwifery in the province of Ontario in the years following professionalization, is that natural birth is being redefined by the personal, political, and pragmatic choices of midwives and their clients. I argue that the construction, negotiation, and experience of natural birth in contemporary midwifery both reflects and promotes a fundamental shift away from essentialized understandings as it makes room for biomedical technology and hospital spaces, underpinned by the midwifery logics of caring and choice. Natural birth in this context also carries important cultural messages—gender expectations—that posit women as persons and bodies as naturally competent and knowing.