What Puritans’ search for religious freedom teaches about natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocacy

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Natural childbirth advocates insist they seek freedom for women — freedom to give birth when, how and attended by whomever they wish. Breastfeeding advocates, lactivists, insist they seek freedom for breastfeeding women — freedom to nurse their children when, where, and in front of whomever they wish.

Not exactly.

They seek freedom for women the same way that the Puritans sought freedom of religion and the results are similar.

Generations of American children have been taught that the Puritans came to Massachusetts, like the Pilgrims who arrived shortly before them, in search of religious freedom. Religion was the purview of the State. They had been born in England in the wake of a bitter religious reformation, wresting the country from Catholic to Protestant in only a few decades. The Puritans believed in a radical “pure” form of Protestantism. King James I believed in a Protestantism that veered back toward Catholicism. He persecuted them; they sought the freedom to worship as they wished and they journeyed across an ocean in order to do so.

Puritans sought to “normalize” Puritanism.

In the parlance of natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocacy, the Puritans sought to “normalize” Puritanism. No one should imagine that they sought religious toleration. Nothing could be further from the truth. They sought to create a theocracy with themselves in charge.

As explained in Smithsonian Magazine:

From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, religion has often been a cudgel, used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the “heretic” and the “unbeliever” — including the “heathen” natives already here…

They did not seek co-existence, as the word toleration implies; they sought domination. The parallels with contemporary natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocacy are clear and deeply unfortunate. Ihe Puritans didn’t intend to make Puritanism “normal”; they sought to make it “normative.”

Natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocates also wish to “normalize” their views of how women ought to use their reproductive organs. They publicly insist that they want nothing more than to make it possible for women who choose natural childbirth or breastfeeding to feel comfortable with their choice and not face discrimination of any kind.

For example, they claim they want to normalize breastfeeding so that women who breastfeed can feel free to feed their children any time and anywhere they are hungry without embarrassment, harrassment or stigma. That is a worthy goal.

However, among themselves, in their journals, on websites and Facebook pages, it is quite clear that they wish to make breastfeeding normative regardless of whether women want to breastfeed and regardless of babies who fail to thrive on breastfeeding.

Dianne Weissinger, an originator of contemporary breastfeeding ideology described lactation consultants thus:

All of us within the profession want breastfeeding to be our biological reference point. We want it to be the cultural norm.

The Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative is the product of that view. Its goal is not helping women to breastfeed; it affirmatively seeks to force women to breastfeed by hectoring them, restricting formula use, grossly exaggerating the benefits of breastfeeding and lying about the real and potentially deadly risks.

If the goal were to help women breastfeed, hospitals would be measuring satisfaction among women who wish to breastfeed. Instead they are measuring the percentage of women who leave the hospital breastfeeding with the assumption that 100% is the goal, regardless of women’s desires and babies’ wellbeing. Like the Puritans before them, they seeks to elevate their personal beliefs not merely to be normal but to be normative, the standard against which everything else is found wanting.

Another, even deadlier example is the UK midwifery Campaign for Normal Birth, emulated by midwives in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The Campaign for Normal Birth has been implicated in dozens, if not hundreds, of preventable neonatal brain injuries and deaths as well as preventable maternal deaths. It has also led to a massive increase in maternity liability payments, £2 billion per year at last count. In the wake of public outcry, the Campaign has been suspended.

The Royal College of Midwives didn’t merely wish to normalize unmedicated vaginal birth without interventions, it openly sought to make it normative.

As explained in the RCM journal at the time of launch:

Ultimately what do we want to happen? The outcomes of the campaign are as follows:

  • Midwives to be energised and confident in practices that facilitate normal birth
  • Birth experiences for women and job satisfaction for midwives to be improved
  • Greater rates of normal birth and a decrease in unnecessary intervention rates to be achieved.

It’s not a coincidence that you don’t see women’s goals and desires on that list. The Campaign was not about making normal birth available to those who wanted it; it was never about normalizing unmedicated vaginal birth. The Campaign was always about forcing it on women who didn’t want it ostensibly for their own good; it was all about making unmedicated vaginal birth normative.

The theology of breastfeeding and the theology of normal birth bear a striking similarity to the theology of Puritanism; both recognize only one world view and seek to impress that view on everyone else. Therefore, it is instructive to look at what happened to the Puritans.

For a time Puritanism was the official religion, indeed the only religion allowed. Ultimately, however, the Puritans were forced to give way to other forms of Protestantism as their members came to the American colonies. Puritanism itself fragmented into a variety of sects. In other words, while Puritans remained free to practice their religion, those who did not want to be Puritans were also free to pursue their beliefs.

That is what will inevitably happen to natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocacy. They will remain normal and but they will not remain normative. The only question is how many babies and mothers will be harmed before we recognize that natural childbirth and breastfeeding are just two choices among other equally valid choices. Their adherents should be free to pursue their vision of what birth and infant feeding should look like without the power to force others to share their vision.

  • maidmarian555

    The thing I really struggle with is that in the UK, we readily accept that the Puritans were nuts and we were well rid. I mean, we absolutely were. They were, indeed, nuts. And yet, we’ve welcomed the normal birth policy and BFHI and breastfeeding uber alles. Historically, we literally kicked people out of the country for being too overbearing when it comes to policing our bodies but in recent years we’ve started welcoming them back. It’s ridiculous.

  • VillosaFabalis

    Comparing this natural childbirth industry to Puritan society is dead on. It’s so scary how mainstream this stuff is becoming. People are so brainwashed about the breast is best mantra that if you dare question it, you are treated like you are incompetent. The info is promoted so much and it’s so invasive that it blows my mind. You would expect to only find it in maternity wards and Ob/Gyn offices but in my state I have seen it on billboard and most recently, huge posters in my school right in front of the elevator so you have no choice but to be slapped in the face with it.
    I’m unlucky enough to live in a state where nearly every single hospital has BFHI status except for maybe two. On their websites, regarding L&D, you are told what what be done to you, (i.e. after baby is born, the baby will be laid on your chest to initiate breastfeeding), your choices be damned.
    What I also don’t understand is the reported attitudes of the nurses in the L&D departments in Baby friendly hospitals. Many women report them rolling their eyes, treating them as incompetent, and refusing them basic care and support. I’m a nursing student myself and how is legal? Doesn’t this go against everything you are taught in nursing school about being an advocate for your patient and providing patient-centered care? I am really shocked. I dread doing my maternity clinical rotation as I will probably be placed in a baby-friendly hospital. I can’t stomach being required to regurgitate the same breastfeeding and skin to skin crap over and over again.

    • Cristina B

      I was 4 months pregnant and at Home Depot buying paint for the future nursery and the *cashier* asked me if I planned to breastfeed (when she found out what the paint was for).

  • StephanieJR

    King Jimmy sure has a lot to answer for, huh?

  • AirPlant

    So the beautiful world of internet targeted advertisements found out that my husband and I are trying for a baby. I expected to see ads for maternity gear and maybe like nursery art but instead it was a barrage of breastfeeding products. Nursing tops, pumps, supplements, support pillows, nursing friendly carriers, just one after another. I even saw an ad for a diaper bag that was like “We have a special pocket for your bottles of pumped breastmilk” like breastfeeding mothers are somehow the primary demographic of women who need to carry bottles around..

    So first off anyone who says breastfeeding is not an industry needs to take a seat because this is ridiculous. Second, can we all just go ahead and say that job done high fives all around, pop the bubbly, we have normalized the hell out of breastfeeding? I mean, I have literally not seen a single reference to the existence of formula, just an endless stream of ugly blouses with built in boob windows so that I can feed an infant who has yet to be conceived.

    • LaMont

      It’s all an industry! A celebrity (well, celebrity among a fairly small in-group) death has recently hit my circle as dozens of people I know had worked with her or met her in some capacity. She died of cancer. TONS of people are lamenting how Big Pharma “doesn’t want to cure cancer because they make more $$ treating it” – don’t tell the several members of my family who have completely been cured of cancer – but then turned around and extolled the reiki and acupuncture the celebrity had resorted to when traditional treatments failed to cure her very deadly form of cancer. I assume reiki healers practice for free, based on the reactions.

      • mabelcruet

        Of course Big Pharma wants to cure cancer! Once cured, people will live longer and then they’ll need more Alzheimer drugs, blood pressure drugs, pain relief for when we all get arthritic, erectile dysfunction drugs for the men, menopausal stuff for the women. No business in its right mind would try and kill off its customer base (except maybe funeral directors and pathologists)

        (TFIC)

        • The Bofa on the Sofa

          No business in its right mind would try and kill off its customer base (except maybe funeral directors and pathologists)

          🙂

        • LaMont

          I mean, if this accusation were true, why do ANY vaccines exist? Why have any cancers been cured (these science-illiterates persist in believing “cancer” is all one thing, ofc, but duuuuude)? Who are these anti-Pharma people exhorting to “find the cure” if all scientists are $$-grubbing whores? The reiki healers? I thought they were doing everything perfectly… I just can’t with this reasoning. Pharma is flawed, severely so. But the main reason diseases get ignored is because of rarity (which is truly what makes their cures unprofitable) – “cancer” is common enough that it DOES raise interest. FFS.

    • space_upstairs

      What else do the algorithms know about you? Your race and ethnicity, location, job, hobbies? Internet ads assume you are like most people who share these kind of data with you. So if most people with your race, ethnicity, location, job, and/or hobbies plan to breastfeed or pump with all the latest gear if they are reproducing, they will assume you do too until your search habits convince them otherwise. I used to get a lot of shoe ads on Facebook, probably from their knowing little besides my age, gender, and location. Now I get lots of tips for parenting babies as I post more about my pregnancy and read about (largely social commentary on) child-rearing practices.

      • mabelcruet

        This is when you start doing some searches for long distance lorry driving courses, ferret breeding, macrame evening classes and home brewing-throw them off the scent….

      • However, amazingly, nearly all the “personalized” ads that show up on my favorite internet sites are wildly (and sometimes, bizarrely) inappropriate so they aren’t doing a very good job of “understanding” me!

        • demodocus

          I was getting “hot Asian women looking for love” for a while there. How they figured between searches for baby stuff and feeding my fiber habit, I’ve no idea.

    • rational thinker

      Breastfeeding is an industry and a big one at that. Whenever someone says its cheaper to breastfeed i just roll my eyes and laugh.
      I strictly formula fed my kids for 12 months exactly. The entire cost was about $1500 per kid. That was 16 years ago so maybe that price goes up $300 if it was todays economy. If a breastfeeding woman sees a lactation consultant 4 times they just spent more than i did in one year. Thats not including all the stupid breastfeeding crap they buy (pillows, clothes ect).

    • Daleth

      “We have a special pocket for your bottles of pumped breastmilk” like
      breastfeeding mothers are somehow the primary demographic of women who
      need to carry bottles around

      Oh please, name and shame that manufacturer. I would love to see them flooded with emails from Fed is Best people (and from me) lambasting them for purposely leaving out FF moms.

  • demodocus

    The smug, self-assured, holier-than-thou-ness is very similar.