Natural childbirth and white privilege

Marie Antoinette midwifery

Avital Norman Nathman, writing in The Frisky, succumbs to what is apparently an irresistible urge among natural childbirth advocates to exploit the tragedies of women of color to advance the agenda of privileged white women. In doing so, she reveals the white privilege at the heart of natural childbirth advocacy.

In Mommie Dearest: Mom Issues That Deserve Media Coverage In 2015, Norman Nachman asserts that mothers:

More stories on our broken birthing industry. I wrote a little bit about why I champion midwifery care here before. And I’ve gone even further, looking at the larger issues surrounding midwifery care in the US. I would love to see more stories in the mainstream delving into these issues and challenging the current status quo when it comes to maternal health in the US. There is something substantially wrong when we have the costliest maternal health care in the world, and yet we rank 60th out of 180 when it comes to maternal mortality (and are one of the few countries where these rates are increasing). So, yeah. More focus/air time on this, please.

But our “birth industry” is not broken and her focus on maternal mortality is not an example of the failure of modern obstetrics, but a glaring example of white privilege.

What is white privilege? According to The Southern Poverty Law Center:

White skin privilege is not something that white people necessarily do, create or enjoy on purpose. Unlike the more overt individual and institutional manifestations of racism described above, white skin privilege is a transparent preference for whiteness that saturates our society. White skin privilege serves several functions. First, it provides white people with “perks” that we do not earn and that people of color do not enjoy. Second, it creates real advantages for us. White people are immune to a lot of challenges. Finally, white privilege shapes the world in which we live — the way that we navigate and interact with one another and with the world.

It is white privilege (in this case the belief that everyone is white, middle class and has easy access to healthcare) that allows Norman Nathman to expropriate the tragedy of maternal mortality (which disproportionately affects African-American women) to advance the agenda of natural childbirth advocates, a group that is almost exclusively Western, white and relatively well off.

White privilege means that Norman Nathman neither knows nor cares about the reality of maternal mortality in childbirth. If she bothered to learn about it, she would be quite surprised.

1. Race, unfortunately, is a risk factor for maternal mortality. Women of African descent have disproprotionately high rates of maternal mortality, even when socio-economic status is taken into account. Black women are more than 3X as likely to die in childbirth as white women and women of other races. We don’t understand why this is so, and its exploration merits intensive research efforts and research dollars.

2. Women of lower socio-economic status are more likely to die in childbirth.

3. Women with pre-existing chronic medical problems or serious medical complications of pregnancy make up a large share of women who die in childbirth.

4. The US has a higher proportion of women of African descent (and, therefore, a higher risk population) than most of the countries that have better maternal mortality rates.

5. Too many American women die in childbirth because we don’t have enough high risk obstetric specialists and high risk obstetric ICUs (intensive care units).

White privilege allows Norman Nathman to ignore the fact that the US maternal mortality rate reflects a population that is blacker, poorer and lacks access to high tech lifesaving care. White privilege allows Norman Nathman to imagine instead that the problem is that we aren’t spending more resources to spread the birth “experience” preferences of wealthy, white childbirth activists. Norman Nathman is the white privilege version of Marie Antoinette who, according to the apocryphal story, responded to learning that the poor were rioting because there was no bread, with the utterly clueless, “Let them eat cake.” Norman Nathman responds to learning that too many American women die in childbirth with the utterly clueless, “Let them get midwives.”

It is morally grotesque and reeks of privilege to suggest that midwifery is the answer to the problem of women dying in pregnancy of heart disease, kidney disease, eclampsia, and other serious complications. Natural childbirth advocates need to check their white privilege, stop imagining that everyone is white, middle class and has easy access to high tech healthcare, and, most importantly, stop expropriating the tragedies of black women to serve the agenda of privileged group of white women.