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Dear birth wars: Vaginal and natural don't mean the same thing

Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer whose work places a feminist lens on a variety of topics, including motherhood, maternal health, gender, and reproductive rights. Her work has been featured in Bitch magazine, Cosmopolitan.com,...

Can we please stop substituting 'natural' for 'vaginal' when it comes to birth?

There are all sorts of pressures and expectations when it comes to birth in this country, and the way we talk about it only makes it worse. Society tosses around the term "natural" to effectively mean a vaginal birth as opposed to a C-section. Or perhaps people mean medicated versus non-medicated. But when we lump everything into one catch-all phrase like "natural," we're only stoking the flames of the very real birth wars.

Language matters, and the way we talk about birth is no exception. In fact, I'd venture to say that because of the culture of judgment surrounding birth, the language that we use when talking about it is even more important. One term that gets thrown around a lot with birth is "natural," but what does that even mean? And, what is the opposite of a natural birth? Are there some people who deliver via robot that I'm unaware of? Is there some sort of artificial birth process where a baby no longer comes out of our bodies one way or another? Of course not. But yet we still insist on using "natural" when talking about birth and birth choices.

The term natural usually conjures up good and positive thoughts. Manufacturers love using the word natural on food labels, beauty products and even cleaning supplies. It makes us feel like we're doing something healthy, beneficial and "right" for ourselves and our bodies. Yet, by that line of thinking, anything that isn't natural usually falls into the bad, toxic or "wrong" categories.

So when we apply "natural" to birth, we're bringing along with it all of the judgment, weight and baggage already wrapped up within it. For some, natural is synonymous with non-medicated birth, meaning no epidural or other pain relief. What's the problem with saying non-medicated then? Yet, for others, natural means vaginal and that's where the real problem falls.

For some reason, our society shies away from using the words vagina or vaginal whenever possible. Misplaced shame or discomfort means the medically correct term gets tossed to the side and a more judgment-heavy term like natural gets used in its stead. There is nothing weird or gross or strange about the word vagina, particularly when referencing birth. The faster society can accept that there is no shame or embarrassment in a woman's body, the sooner we can focus on real issues impacting pregnancy and birth, like the fact that the U.S. ranks 60th out of 180 countries when it comes to maternal mortality rates.

Women are already fighting an uphill battle when it comes to judgment surrounding all things pregnancy, birth and motherhood. When it comes to birth, the method of delivery is always scrutinized, as if choices made somehow reflect your parenting potential. Why add fuel to the fire being using terms that are more likely to divide than unite? Just because some people are uncomfortable with saying "vagina." Not a good enough reason, in my opinion.

More on labor and delivery

Wisconsin hospital wants to limit your childbirth options
Florida woman ordered to have a C-section against her will
What birth is really like: The naked truth

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