How natural childbirth advocates exploit women of color


Yesterday I mentioned the racists tropes that are at the heart of natural childbirth (and therefore homebirth and UC) advocacy. To paraphrase:

Just like blackface performers often portrayed people of color as happy to be slaves, natural childbirth advocates (generally well off white women) like to portray women of color (albeit without the blackface) as without fear and happy to give birth “in nature.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s not a surprise that this racist trope is at the heart of natural childbirth advocacy. It harks back to the racism of Grantly Dick-Read, the “father” of natural childbirth. Dick-Read viewed natural childbirth as a way for white women of the “better” classes to avoid “race suicide.” Ornella Moscucci explains the thinking of Dick-Read and his eugenicist peers:

… Dick-Read … claimed that primitives experienced easy, painless labours. This was because in primitive societies the survival value of childbirth was fully appreciated and labour was regarded as nothing more than “hard work” in the struggle for existence. In civilised societies on the other hand a number of cultural factors conspired to distort woman’s natural capacity for painless birth, producing in woman a fear of childbirth that hindered normal parturition …

In other words, “natural” childbirth is based on the racist assumption that “primitive women” (read “women of color”) are fundamentally different from white women, simultaneously simple (longing only to reproduce) and unafraid of dying in childbirth, rendering them immune to the pain and dangers of birth.

That racist trope is alive and well among contemporary natural childbirth advocates who pretend to themselves that they are re-enacting childbirth among indigenous peoples. Their little fantasy bears as much resemblance to childbirth in nature as a 3rd grade Thanksgiving play bears to the real relationship between the Pilgrims and the “uncivilized” Native Americans they came to displace.

But the racism extends even further. Natural childbirth advocates are positively eager to use the misfortunes of women of color to advance their own privileged agenda. They delight in pointing to relatively high rates of perinatal and maternal mortality in the US (as compared to other, “whiter” countries), yet ignore that they are the result of appalling death rates among African American women and their babies.Natural childbirth advocates and organizations have the unmitigated gall to imply that these women are dying of “too much” medical intervention when the reality is that they are dying of too little intervention for the serious complications they face.

Ina May Gaskin, a privileged white woman, has led the way in this exploitation. Gaskin never misses an opportunity to highlight mortality rates and even created a “Safe Motherhood” quilt project to draw attention to the problem. Gaskin represents herself as shocked at the current rate of maternal mortality. Yet as far as far as I can tell, homebirth midwives in general and Gaskin in particular have done NOTHING (no research, no education, no fund raising) to reduce the incidence of maternal mortality.

Anyone who visits the quilt website will notice something rather curious. There is NO information about the causes, treatments and research into maternal mortality. There are no scientific papers about maternal mortality. There is nothing about the epidemiology of maternal mortality.

That’s because Gaskin and other natural childbirth advocates care about the deaths of women and babies of color only to the extent that they can exploit them for their own ends, not because they care that they are dead and not because they have any intention of lobbying for an increase in high risk obstetricians to treat the problem.

The exploitation of women of color extends to the many ham handed attempts to increase breastfeeding rates. For example, ending gifts of free formula samples does NOTHING to increase the rate of breastfeeding. It’s only real impact is to deprive poor women (among which women of color are overrepresented) of a desperately needed resource for infant formula.

None of this is surprising. The natural childbirth movement is by, about and for privileged white women.

Political scientist Candace Johnson explores the role of “natural” childbirth as a philosophy of privilege in contemporary society in The Political “Nature” of Pregnancy and Childbirth. Johnson asks:

[W]hy do some women (mostly privileged and in developed countries) demand less medical intervention in pregnancy and childbirth, while others (mostly vulnerable women in both developed and developing countries) demand more …? Why do the former, privileged women, tend to express their resistance to medical intervention in the language of “nature,” “tradition,” and “normalcy”?

And answers:

It is a rejection of privilege that simultaneously confirms it. Therefore, the problem of medicalization seems to apply disproportionately to privileged women. In fact, some of the most serious pronouncements of medical interference in pregnancy and childbirth as a “natural, normal, woman-centered event” come from women of considerable privilege and authority…

The fantasy of Third World women’s natural experiences of childbirth has become iconic among first world women, even if these experiences are more imagined than real. This creates multiple opportunities for exploitation, as the experiences of Third World women are used as a means for first world women to acquire knowledge, experience and perspective on ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ birthing practices, while denying the importance of medical services that privileged women take for granted.

Natural childbirth rests to a large extent on misrepresenting women of color, while simultaneously exploiting the poor outcomes of those very same women in a thoroughly disingenuous critique of modern obstetrics.

It may be unconscious racism, but it is racism nonetheless.