Charlotte Bevan’s death: an indictment of a breastfeeding culture that ignores the needs of women

Charlotte Bevan

Is breast still best when it leads to the murder-suicide of a baby and mother?

According to The Telegraph:

A mother who was found dead on a cliff face after wandering out of hospital with her newborn baby had been advised by doctors to stop taking an anti-psychotic medication so she could breastfeed.

Charlotte Bevan, 30, vanished from a Bristol maternity hospital with no coat or shoes, and with her four-day-old baby Zaani wrapped in a blanket in December 2014.

It is believed that she had suffered from schizophrenia and depression, and had been taking the drug risperidone.

The litany of failures in this case nearly defies belief, up to an including the fact that a shoeless woman was allowed to leave the hospital holding a newborn, and, of course, the inevitable stalling by the hospital representative who showed up to yesterday’s inquest into Bevan’s death without having taken statements from caregivers that he or she was supposed to present.

When it comes to caregivers, there is an enormous amount of blame to go around. Who tells a schizophrenic to go off her anti-psychotic meds to breastfeed? Use of risperidone, the medication that Bevan was taking, is compatible with both pregnancy and breastfeeding if the mother needs the medication. Who lets a schizophrenic go off her anti-psychotic medications without intensive monitoring? Who hands a baby to an unmedicated schizophrenic without continuous supervision to be sure that she does not harm her baby?

When it comes to philosophy, however, there is only one philosophy to blame: the philosophy of natural parenting that views women as nothing more than baby containers and feeders whose health, physical and mental, is irrelevant.

For most of human history, women have been reduced to three body parts: uterus, vagina and breasts. Their intellect was irrelevant; their talents were irrelevant; their wants and needs were irrelevant. For a while it appeared that we had moved beyond this deeply sexist and retrograde view of women, but now it’s back in a new guise: natural parenting, specifically natural childbirth, lactivism and attachment parenting. These movements place the (purported) needs of babies front and center. They ignore the needs of women.

In the case of breastfeeding, an industry has grown up around the assertion that “breast is best.” Best for whom? Best for babies, of course.

The benefits of breastfeeding have been grossly exaggerated, with lactivists referring to breast milk as “liquid gold.” The non-existent “risks” of bottle feeding are blared far and wide. In short, infant feeding has been thoroughly moralized into just another way to police women’s bodies and judge mothers as “good” or “bad.”

Is it best for mothers? Often it isn’t, but their needs — the need to sleep, the need to work, the need to share care giving with others, the need to own their own bodies —  are irrelevant.

Charlotte Bevan had schizophrenia. It’s an illness every bit as real as diabetes. Untreated it leads to severe compromise and even death.

Charlotte Bevan NEEDED risperidone. Why wasn’t she getting the medication that she needed, the medication that made the difference between her life and her death?

Why wasn’t Bevan encouraged to stay on her anti-psychotic medication? Because quite a few people believed that the purity of her breast milk was more important than her right to live without the torment of the voices she heard in her head.

How did we get to the point where women’s needs are viewed as irrelevant? How did we get to the point where health care providers (!!), weighed breast milk against Charlotte Bevan’s sanity and breast milk won?

We got here by way of a philosophy that renders women’s needs, even their need to be sane, invisible, routinely subordinated to fabricated “needs” of babies for parenting that recapitulates women’s subservient status in nature.

The death of Charlotte Bevan and her baby Zaani should be a wake up call to all of us, health care providers, feminists and anyone who cares about women, that women’s needs MATTER.

Women are people entitled to the best care we can provide for them, not baby containers and not milk machines. Moralizing infant feeding is wrong, not merely because the benefits of breastfeeding in industrialized countries are trivial. It is wrong because by pitting mothers against babies, everyone loses.