The Challenge of Using the Word “Empowered”

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What is an empowered birth? It's a basic human right.

For this official “Empowered Birth Week” special post, I have pondered long and hard about the word empowered and how I have come to work with it in my developments. The word “empowered” can be a lively word with vitality and strength, and it can also be a heavily laden and subjective value judgment. Who defines empowerment in any given category? What does the word mean in everyday life? And for the purposes of this week, what does it mean for birth?

People everywhere have been pursuing what I’d call an empowered birth experience. This is a birth void of unnecessary medical intervention, but what does necessary even mean when it comes to birth? Bear with me while I trudge through some definitions and etymology.

Mirriam Webster’s online dictionary has three definitions for “empowered.” The first has to do with providing legal authority. The next one has a link to the word enabled, which it says means to provide with opportunity. The third definition for empowered has to do with the women’s movement and the promotion of self-actualization, and then it has Roy Hansen’s name next to it. A quick Google search brought up nothing on a Roy Hansen defining empowered in terms of the women’s movement.

Let’s break down the word empowered. It is made up of a prefix, em, which means to make into, to put into, or to get into.

Then there’s the word powered of the word power, which is firstly defined by Mirriam-Webster as the ability to act or put into effect. Power is derived from the latin word potens, which is a participle of the verb possum, which means to be able. Think of the word potent. You might say, “Man, this chili is potent,” which would mean you think it is really hot and has a lot of heat relative to the amount of chili used. Perhaps, you could say it has a high concentration of the enzymes that create the heat effect.

Thus, when we break down the word empowered, we get something like this…to get into being able, which, if you think about it, is a pretty big deal. Being Able. Perhaps you could say that it is the perfect balance of masculine and feminine. Being is essence of femininity. Able has to do with the skill to do something, which is the essence of the masculine. We should write Roy Hansen.

Now, onto the challenge that I have found with working under the name “Empowered.”

If you say that you are empowered, then you are saying, essentially, that you are able to do something. As for Empowered Papa, I am saying that I am, and that dads everywhere, are able to be dads. With the word empowered there is, also, the suggestion of elevation and that you have brought yourself above the common person to a status of glory. I think it can be a lofty and pretentious title, and when I first started Empowered Papa I received some very critical feedback from individuals who read such an interpretation into my message. Yet, in a more broad perception, the word empowered has been taken by  the modern, gentle birth movement to describe their efforts to make birth an environment where a woman’s choice is respected, encouraged, and championed.

Empowered Birth Week to me is a way for us to further define what specific actions constitute an empowered birth, which can, again, get very tricky. Isn’t it that only the person who is going through an experience can define it as empowered? Is it appropriate for us to judge another person’s experience as being empowered or not? Let’s take it directly to birth and the DONA founder, Annie Kennedy, who commented during my session that a c-section could be an empowered birth. Isn’t it true? Couldn’t you say that a tremendous intervention such as a c-section is empowered if the mamma knew what it meant and chose to do it? How bout an elective c-section? Where do you draw the line? Seriously. Where do you draw the line? At what point do you say that a birth isn’t empowered?

To figure out more what others are saying, I checked out Orgasmic Birth film documentist and doula trainer, Debra Pascali-Bonaro, who along with several others have created the International Motherbaby Childbirth Organization and along with it very specific lists of qualities to indicate the conditions necessary for birth. There are 18 Basic Principles  formed as part of the International Motherbaby Initiative and are streamlined into 10 Steps to Optimal Motherbaby Maternity Services. These steps are already being implemented fully into 9 demonstration hospital sites around the globe. Without further adieu, here are the 10 steps .

If you want your socks knocked off, then check out the video Break the Silence that Debra aired during her DONA Conference talk in Cancun. The video is put on by the White Ribbon Alliance, and you might recognize the style of the music and design, because it’s done up by Thievery Corporation’s Rob Myers. What a class act is this video, which goes into simple and elegant detail of the 7 Universal Rights of Childbearing Women.  Here are the rights as they are seen on the White Ribbon Alliance website.

7 Universal Rights of Childbearing Women


If you watched the video, then you’ll notice the line at the end, “Women’s memories of their birth experiences stay with them for a lifetime. Respectful maternity care is a basic human right.” When I think of the time and effort that the aforementioned organizations and people put into creating these guidelines, I get less worried about whether or not we are going to call a certain birth empowered. I get an overwhelming sense of motivation and drive to advocate for a woman’s experience of birth that honors the way her body and mind works. Because, at the end of the day, all that matters is that she feels good about herself and her actions in maternity no matter the outcome or circumstances. Above all, empowerment has to do with being able to have choice, understanding, to be heard, and to experience love. If the principles outlined by the organizations mentioned here were followed for every child on Earth, just imagine what the world would be like. Just imagine.

What does your empowered birth world look like?

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4 Responses to "The Challenge of Using the Word “Empowered”"
  1. Shanon says:

    Empowerment is an external concept being conveyed on another. I decided to write “powerful” instead in the last few years. It should be a coming into your own power, not a gift someone else gives to you. My .02

    • Joe_Valley says:

      The definition of empowered that suggests the motivation comes from within is a definition I like. Shanon, you have drawn awareness to this nicely.

  2. Aliani says:

    i disagree that “all that matters is that the woman feel good about herself and her actions” – because the baby’s experience also matters probably even more than hers, as the baby’s experience of birth forms the blueprint for his/her entire life. therefore an elective c-section (for example) in my book does not qualify as a “good” or “empowered” birth, no matter how the mother feels about it. 

    • Joe_Valley says:

      Very good point, Aliani. I agree that the baby’s experience matters, and I overlooked that in the statement you pointed out.

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