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The Cult of Nature-Worship

Many Americans view childbirth as a woman's unchanging contract with a God-like version of nature. And it's not just the Bible-thumping conservatives.
 
 
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Be it a matter of stem cell research or the morning-after pill, the United States seems to be leading the charge right back to the Dark Ages. Our public policy debates are increasingly characterized by a fear of medical science and technology that is downright retrograde and superstitious.

Last week, in Bangkok, American AIDS ambassador Randall Tobias enhanced this reputation by trying to promote abstinence at the International AIDS Conference. The main thrust of the Bush administration's AIDS strategy has been to persuade young women around the world to "Just say no" to sex rather than offering condoms (along with lube to make sure they actually work) and better sex education.

The U.S. insistence on prioritizing sexual morality over human suffering – to the point of preventing our own scientists from attending the conference – left us isolated. Even Britain made a point of publicly distancing itself from our policies, as if American phobias about the body are themselves a communicable disease which any self-respecting modern country – even a loyal military ally – should protect itself from.

But this tendency to demonize medical technology – i.e., the use of medicine to protect the body from the consequences of human behavior – is hardly a preserve of Bible-thumping conservatives. Authoritarian attitudes about the body – especially the female body– can also stem from ardent, well-meaning worship of Nature.

Take, for example, the contentious issue of elective Caesarian-sections. As a recent article in Salon.com reveals, Americans are deeply conflicted over elective C-sections, which inevitably spark a heated debate between those who view it as a feminist choice and others who abhor them as an affront to nature or a nasty symptom of over-medicalization.

"Cut and Run" author Dana Hudepohl left me wondering whether Americans are more superstitious about childbirth than other cultures, including Brazil and Denmark.

In Brazil, the overall caesarean delivery rate is 50 to 60 percent. It climbs to 90 percent among the wealthy, which suggests that women who can afford to choose a medical alternative tend to do so overwhelmingly.

But are elective C-sections the exclusive preserve of those who are just "too posh to push"?

Not quite. In Denmark, a country with less dramatic extremes of wealth than Brazil, 40 percent of the doctors support a woman's right to request a Caesarian delivery. Charlotte Wilken-Jensen, chairman of the Danish Association of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and an attending physician at Roskilde County Hospital, simply shrugged off the increasing number of elective C-sections, saying, "Women's threshold for all things painful and uncontrollable is lower. It's become more unusual for Danish women to just let things run their course."

In stark contrast, elective C-sections in the U.S., which accounted for 2.2 percent of deliveries in 2002, a 25 percent increase in three years, are far more controversial. Many American doctors see Caesarian deliveries as a problem, period, elective or not. Dr. Theodore M. Peck, the author of "Empowered Pregnancy" told Salon, "The outrageous Cesarean rate we now have in this country is a national medical disgrace."

So a healthy woman today who requests a C-section for her own reasons may encounter fierce resistance – often from her own doctor. The current movement against medical intervention is the polar opposite of 1950s technomania, when breast-feeding and natural birth were unfashionable, and your doctor thought he was God.

But some things – like the pressure to conform – haven't changed at all. Today, we must bow to Nature's edicts instead of those of an obstetrician. An equally dangerous logic is at work in the dogmatic insistence on vaginal delivery. The logic of nature-worship tells us that a woman is not virtuous unless she tries to have the baby the way God intended.

Amazingly, these values are often promoted by Americans who regard themselves as secular, feminist or forward-thinking consumers of technology. Recently, a friend who opted for surgery to improve his vision (because he finds eyeglasses cumbersome) spoke of an "alarming increase in unnecessary C-sections." This kind of doublethink is hardly unusual.

Women who have "unnecessary" C-sections are often stereotyped as victims of medical bureaucracy. Or else, they are selfish monsters who don't love their babies enough, shopping for an easier birth. You're either to be pitied as a prisoner of medicalization or spanked for wanting to be serviced at this primal, awe-inspiring moment. As one Salon reader put it, "Child rearing is not for the selfish or the faint of heart. If you can't even deal with the delivery, then God help you with the rest!"

Oddly, according to the natural-is-best logic, it is more "acceptable" to have a Caesarian because of last-minute complications than a planned one. Yet, medical studies show that while having a C-section during a difficult birth is common, it is also riskier than consciously planning for one.

But it is not as reprehensible and shallow, according to the vaginal birth advocates, because Nature has been given her due.

It's not unlike girls – taught to feel guilty about their sexual desires – who felt more virtuous if they didn't carry birth control. Sure, sex was more spontaneous and "natural" – but it was far more likely to result in pregnancy or disease. Both maternal and erotic love are thought to spring magically from Nature. In reality, they benefit a great deal from Nurture.

Many nature-worshippers tend to forget that medical intervention has made it possible for us to experience sexual intimacy without the attendant dangers by offering us STD protection and birth control. Had our sex lives never been "medicalized," we would not have gained the freedom to express our sexual desires.

We view conception itself as an elective – not a supernatural occurrence or a religious obligation but, ideally, a choice. Why not extend some of this secular reasoning to the actual process of birth? Is there something deep within the American soul that views childbirth as Woman's unchanging contract with a God-like version of nature?

Tracy Quan is the author of "Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl" (Three Rivers Press.)