The racism of natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocacy

erasing racism, hand written word on blackboard being erased concept

Sadly, there is an ugly history of racism in medicine. What’s less well known is the history of racism in natural childbirth advocacy and breastfeeding promotion.

As Alison Phipps explains in‘The New Reproductive Regimes of Truth,’ a chapter in the book The Politics of the Body: Gender in a Neoliberal and Neoconservative Age, natural childbirth advocates and lactivists promote an exoticized view the poor indigenous mothers of color while portraying mothers of color from their own societies as “uneducated” and lazy.

NCB and lactivism promote exoticized views of indigenous mothers of color while portraying mothers of color from their own societies as “uneducated” and lazy.

Complementing this focus on the ‘natural’, there is a tendency to search for authenticity and origins in the discussion of alternative birth practices. This … often involves the Orientalizing of ‘traditional’ cultures, whether prehistoric or from developing countries. American childbirth educator Judith Lothian describes her Lamaze class as modelling ‘traditional ways of passing information about birth from generation to generation’, and advice to mothers to pursue on-demand or extended breastfeeding often makes reference to the fact that these practices are common outside the West, but without highlighting pertinent differences in culture and lifestyle.

In other words, both natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocates mobilize the myth of the “noble savage.”

According to Rational Wiki:

The noble savage stereotype is generally considered racist, ethnocentric, or culturally insensitive at the very least due to its association with a long history of imperialism, colonialism, and scientific racism …

A good deal of colonial histories and perceptions of indigenous people were based on myths, legends, and pseudohistory…

The racist myth of the “noble savage” is often used to promote pseudoscience:

Noble savage stereotypes are often used to sell woo, especially nature woo due to the perception that indigenous people are more “in tune” with nature or have some ancient and secret knowledge.

Natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocates often channel Grantly Dick-Read’s racist, sexist notions of “primitive” women. According to Dick-Read, “primitive” women have painless childbirth because they are content with their lot of being restricted to childbearing and childrearing. Of course, Dick-Read made it up and his invocation of a tension-fear-pain cycle was the result of his racist assumptions.

As Phipps notes:

… Like the claims of many contemporary activists, however, Dick-Read’s points were made despite the fact that he had not spent extensive time in non-western countries. The lack of an evidence base to corroborate such assertions is particularly problematic when non-western birthing practices are appropriated in the service of authenticity rather than effectiveness.

Contrast that with the view of poor, non-white women in their own countries:

… [W]omen who choose childbirth interventions or formula feed (who are largely from working-class and minority ethnic groups) [are] presented as ignorant and lazy or at best in need of education (which feeds racist and classist stereotypes). A generous formulation is that women lack the confidence to give birth without technology and need to be educated to trust themselves …

The surprising paradox is that natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocates claim to emulate indigenous mothers of color, whom they view as authentic and close to nature, while simultaneously demonizing mothers of color in their own countries whom they view as too ignorant to recognize the birth and breastfeeding “regimes of truth,” and too lazy to employ them when they learn of them.

The notion that women who have different preferences in childbirth and infant feeding are both ignorant and slothful justifies the beloved preoccupation of natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocates with the coercion of “informed choice.”

Within this framework of compulsory empowerment through ‘informed choice’, deviant behaviours are positioned as being a product of ignorance or weak-mindedness, rather than affirmative choices in favour of an alternative. This is clear in Lothian’s question: ‘why are women seemingly uninterested in choosing normal birth, in spite of our best efforts?’

Phipps concludes:

… [A]lthough birth and breastfeeding activists have a tendency to present themselves as counter-cultural, and identify themselves with global Others in their appropriation of ‘traditional’ practices, there is little attention paid to the stigmatizing effect this might have upon our own social Others, the working-class and minority ethnic women who may choose birth interventions or infant formula for a variety of structural reasons.

It makes you wonder: where would natural childbirth and breastfeeding advocates be without racist portrayals of mothers of color.