Milli Hill demonstrates that natural childbirth is an issue of privileged, Western white women


Oh, the horror!

Milli Hill of The Positive Birth Movement is outraged.

Over the weekend, Facebook removed two images from our page and subjected myself and my organisation to a 24-hour ban. This was because, in its words, the images “violated community standards”. Neither image fits the stereotypical picture that most of us have of birth. In the first, a woman kneels: she looks composed, vital and beautiful. The second shows a baby emerging underwater into her mother’s own hands.

You could argue that this is simply about nudity, but I think there’s more to it. Social media reflects our wider culture’s issue, not with naked women, but with naked women who look real and active as opposed to air-brushed and passive. It also reflects millennia of attempts to suppress women’s power, of which childbirth is perhaps the ultimate expression.

Hill needs to get a grip. Are we supposed to imagine that Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and their minions at Facebook spent even a microsecond imagining that images of naked natural childbirth advocates reflect “women’s power,” let alone plotted to suppress them? Hill’s presumption is breathtaking in its narcissism. We all know that the photos were likely flagged by an algorithm (or by disgruntled readers) and removed because they violate the policy of a private corporation. No one at Facebook cares about Milli Hill, about natural childbirth, or whether or not images of naked natural childbirth advocates are reflections of their power.

Hill demonstrates, yet again, that natural childbirth, far from being a feminist issue is an issue of privileged, Western, white, relatively well off women who think that the worst thing that can happen to them is that Facebook is interfering with their freedom of expression.

Make no mistake, childbirth is, indeed, a feminist issue, and we should all be working to end maternal mortality, prematurity, neonatal death, obstetric fistula, lack of access to birth control, and the shackling of women prisoners in labor, among other issues that violate the rights of women and limit their ability to pursue their own happiness. But those are issues that disproportionally affect poor women, women of color and women of underdeveloped countries. Who cares about them? Certainly not natural childbirth advocates.

Indeed, natural childbirth advocacy has a long and sordid history of exploiting poor women of color. It started with Grantly Dick-Read, the father of natural childbirth, who based its philosophy on the racist claim 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 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.

The philosophy of natural childbirth is a rejection of privilege that simultaneously confirms it. Simply put, you have to be privileged enough to have easy access to safe pain relief in labor in order to give meaning to refusing it. You have to be privileged enough to have immediate access to high quality emergency obstetric services in order to give meaning and assure safety to refusing the testing and procedures (“interventions”) designed to prevent those emergencies in the first place.

Milli Hill has helpfully demonstrated, yet again, the incredible privilege of the Western, white, relatively well off women who imagine that by refusing pain medication they are demonstrating their “power” and who in their egotism pretend that when Facebook applies the same standards to them as to everyone else, they are somehow singling them out for special treatment.

Sorry to disappoint you, Milli Hill; while childbirth is a feminist issue, natural childbirth is not. Feminists everywhere should be working to put an end to the scourges of maternal mortality, prematurity, neonatal death, obstetric fistula, lack of access to birth control, and the shackling of women prisoners in labor, among other issues. In a list of the top 10 feminist childbirth issues, however, the removal from Facebook of photos depicting naked natural childbirth advocates giving birth ranks approximately 29th.