Natural childbirth and the racialization of pregnant bodies

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Yesterday I wrote about the racist origins of the philosophy of natural childbirth.

The idea that “primitive” women feel no pain in childbirth and that the pain that Western women experience can be attributed to the “fear-tension-pain cycle” originated with obstetrician Grantly Dick-Read. If you doubt that his fabricated claims were based on racism, you only have to read his own words:

Natural childbirth philosophy is fundamentally and ineradicably racist.

The primitive knows that she will have little trouble when her child is born… Natural birth is all that she looks for; there are no fears in her mind; …she has no knowledge of the tragedies of sepsis, infection and hemorrhage. To have conceived is her joy; the ultimate result of her conception is her ambition…

…Two, three or four percent of some tribes [died] without any sadness . . . realizing if they were not competent to produce children for the spirits of their fathers and for the tribe, they had no place in the tribe.

While contemporary natural childbirth advocates are either ignorant of or choose to ignore the racist origins of their philosophy, academic feminists have been studying how the racialization of pregnant bodies lies at the heart of natural childbirth philosophy, from its beginnings to the present day.

Rachelle Chadwick explores the racist and classist assumptions in her book Bodies that Birth: Vitalizing Birth Politics.

In the present day, racist and imperialist prejudices about women’s birthing bodies continue to underpin contemporary rhetoric about biomedicalization, ‘natural childbirth’ and rights-based discourse advocating for women’s right to choice and control. These underlying assumptions are rarely recognized or acknowledged. Colonial ideas about indigenous and black women’s bodies as primitive and animal-like and thus primed to give birth (and breastfeed) easily and without pain or the need for medical assistance, are rooted in ideologies of racial difference and Social Darwinism

Grantly Dick-Read’s racist beliefs persist among leaders and laypeople in the natural childbirth movement:

Colonial myths about easy and painless birth for so-called ‘primitive’ women also continue to frame and are used to legitimize the (largely middle-class and Euro-American) ‘natural birth’ movement and meta-narrative…

These racist myths play an outsize role in homebirth and freebirths:

These racist assumptions continue to resonate in contemporary discourse about homebirth, natural birth and unassisted birth or what has become known as ‘free birth’ in the form of the caricature of the ‘Third World,’ rural or ‘primitive’ woman who does not require biomedical assistance but gives birth alone and without medical intervention… [T]he ‘primitive’ woman, “haunts western women’s birth stories” as a romanticized, racist ideal that valorizes the power of the instinctive, pure or ‘natural’ birthing body …

The trope of the primitive woman who approaches the birth of her baby in an ‘uncomplicated’ fashion, with a “built-in knowledge of childbirth” and “without fear” has been found to inspire and embolden women’s decisions to birth outside the medical system (i.e. homebirth or unassisted birth) and pervade the talk of women planning homebirths.

Chadwick argues that the philosophy of natural childbirth continues to be fundamentally racist:

The call to return to ‘authentic’ birth and “natural selves” while ostensibly neutral, is actually an implicitly racially marked project aimed at predominantly white and privileged women.

This ongoing racism has real and deadly consequences for black women in industrialized countries. The natural childbirth movement, having conjured a racialized pregnant body as inherently “perfectly designed” for birth, elides the fact that black women are much more likely to die in childbirth than white women. To the extent that the tragedies of black pregnant women have been recognized by white women, it is to exploit those tragedies to argue – falsely and disingenuously – that black women need more of what white women want: intervention-free unmedicated vaginal birth, midwives and doulas.

But black women in industrialized countries are not dying because of too many interventions. They are dying because they don’t have access to the very interventions that white natural childbirth advocates deride. Black women die preventable deaths during pregnancy and childbirth because they need more high tech care — medical specialists, perinatologists, ICUs — not less.

The bottom line is that the contemporary philosophy of natural childbirth is fundamentally and ineradicably racist. It is long past time that the natural childbirth movement acknowledge its racist underpinnings and excise its racist assumptions about “unhindered,” “instinctual”, “natural” birth.

I’m not holding my breath. The racist trope of “the primitive woman who approaches the birth of her baby … without fear” is central to natural childbirth and beloved of privileged white natural childbirth advocates; racism be damned.

  • Mel

    NCB always reminds me of the person who creates a problem then sells a solution to solve the problem they created.

    Do white women really want more unmedicated vaginal births with a doula and midwife? I feel like NCB practitioners want more women to have ‘natural’ births – and have to spend a great deal of time and energy drumming up more business because relatively few women are as excited about giving birth at home with a not-really-certified midwife with a huge out-of-pocket cost and there are more wannabe midwives than clients.

    Maybe I just run with the wrong crowd, but most of the women I know who have had babies were ok with getting an epidural during labor and being attended by someone who had a doctor’s licence. I do know one woman who had a baby with a CNM – but she gave birth in a real hospital with the CNM working along side by OB/GYN partners in case the planned low-intervention birth needed more interventions – which sounds reasonable to me.

  • rational thinker

    In the past before OB’s and hospital access the chances of dying in childbirth is the reason there are so many fairy tales about “the wicked stepmother”.

  • MaineJen

    The HELL did I just read:

    “…Two, three or four percent of some tribes [died] without any sadness . . . realizing if they were not competent to produce children for the spirits of their fathers and for the tribe, they had no place in the tribe.”

    I guess I shouldn’t be shocked that Dr. DICK would spell it out quite so clearly…but somehow, I am.

    • Mel

      Plus – how likely is it that Dr. Dick have gotten that information from actual living women?

      Anthropology has been wising up to the fact that what a person will tell another person can be greatly affected by the gender, race, age and social positions of the two people. Dr. Dick reads as being the wrong gender, race, and social position to elicit real information from women of color about childbearing ideals. (I’m assuming he was older when he was allegedly traveling overseas; if he was young or middle-aged, that’s not helpful either.)

      In the rural area I live, I’ve heard WAAY more detail about other women’s childbirth experience since I’ve given birth myself than I did when I was a married woman without kids. This makes me wonder how much more information anthropologists would get on female life in general if they sent in older women who had marriage and childrearing experience to ask questions like “So….what was having babies like for you?”

      • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

        People make up “Just So” stories about the information they are supposedly gathering, especially in cultures they are not part of. Educated people are often very insistent that they could not possible have bias’s and prejudices. One has to be very careful not to let ones own background and assumptions influence ones research. Also for a supposed doctor to assume that maternal deaths were all caused by something that is inheritable is just sad…and stupid.

      • MaineJen

        That makes total sense to me. There’s a kind of “commiseration” that happens between women who’ve already given birth, comparing stories, “Can you believe how painful it was,” etc. (Though I always kind of try to protect women who haven’t given birth yet when I talk to them; I don’t want to scare them!) Men generally aren’t as interested in the details, in my experience. So they tend to get a broad overview. I can only imagine what they thought of Dr. Dick.

      • demodocus

        Especially women anthropologists who have children of their own. I don’t discuss half of my experience with men face to face and my filter’s so broken that people occasionally are impressed by how forthright I am.

  • The Bofa on the Sofa

    The primitive knows that she will have little trouble when her child is born…

    FFS, I’ll say it again:
    3000 years ago, childbirth was recognized as being so painful that it was considered to be punishment from God.

    So much for “she will have little trouble….”

    Not only does he use a racist trope, it’s a bullshit racist trope at that.

    • Christine O’Hare

      Yes! And women literally wrote their wills and sold possessions because the likelihood of dying in childbirth was so high.

      • The Bofa on the Sofa

        In rural China in the early 1900s, the lifespan was 23 for men and 22 for women. I use it to illustrate 2 things:

        1) The reason the lifespan for women was shorter than for men was because dying in childbirth was so common, and
        2) “Traditional Chinese Medicine” was worth diddly squat.

      • KeeperOfTheBooks

        Hell, I have a copy of the will my great-grandmother wrote in anticipation of my grandmother’s birth. Like, it literally starts out with “I, Name, being of sound mind and body, and in anticipation of my forthcoming confinement” or some such language, basically saying “I’m tidying up any loose ends in case something happens, and I recognize it’s a distinct possibility that it may.”

    • Amazed

      The very use of “the primitive” to describe a woman rubs me the wrong way. Racist and misogynist as hell.