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.

  • Eliza

    I don’t see any evidence (quotes, stats, etc) that supports what you state – that natural birth advocates portray ‘mothers of color from their own societies as “uneducated” and lazy.”‘ I see that you quote Phipps’ book, which puts forth this stance, but where are the examples? This seems to just be your opinion…

    • rational thinker

      “but where are the examples? This seems to just be your opinion…”
      The examples can be found in a lot of places. Natural parenting websites/message boards, breastfeeding and lactivist mommy boards/websites. Visit some of these places online it wont be very long to find an example or many.

      • Eliza

        If this racism is so prevalent in lactation research and natural childbirth advocacy, it would behoove the author to include some examples in this entry that is proclaiming it to be so pervasive, rather than assuming that the reader will go find examples on their own. Again, these comments all reference anecdotal stories and the writers’ own personal conclusions. I have read some lactation research and holistic childbirth advocacy and have seen nothing of the kind. If there are so many examples, I wouldn’t think Dr. Tuteur would have a hard time citing some in this entry.

      • Eliza

        If this racism is so prevalent in lactation research and natural childbirth advocacy, it would behoove the author to include some examples in this entry that is proclaiming it to be so pervasive, rather than assuming that the reader will go find examples on their own. Again, these comments all reference anecdotal stories and the writers’ own personal conclusions. I have read some lactation research and holistic childbirth advocacy and have seen nothing of the kind. If there are so many examples, I wouldn’t think Dr. Tuteur would have a hard time citing some in this entry.

        • The Bofa on the Sofa

          I think you can start with this…

          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,

          which is referred to in the blog post.

        • There’s also that the whole natural childbirth movement was started by a racist white guy, Grantly Dick-Read (seriously, that’s actually his name). From Wikipedia (and please do read the cited sources):

          In [Dick-Read’s] book Motherhood in the Post-War World he wrote, “Woman fails when she ceases to desire the children for which she was primarily made. Her true emancipation lies in freedom to fulfill her biological purposes,” as well as stating that tribal women who died in childbirth did so “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.” He also stated in 1942, “The mother is the factory, and by education and care she can be made more efficient in the art of motherhood.”

          He also claimed that “primitive” women did not experience childbirth pain, although he did not define “primitive” and never watched women in childbirth in “primitive” societies. Anthropological research has demonstrated this claim to be untrue. There is as much variety in the method and experience of giving birth in so-called “primitive cultures” as there are in Western cultures.

          And while movements can outgrow their founders, any idea that is perniciously rooted in racism (and misogyny, but our focus today is racism) is going to have a very high bar to prove itself not-racist. Natural childbirth hasn’t come close to passing that bar.

    • MaineJen

      The examples? Look at the publications of any “lactation researcher” and notice how they are all *completely mystified* as to why poor women don’t seem as interested in breastfeeding as they are in just making sure that everyone in their family is fed, clothed and under a safe roof.

      Trying to educate poor women on what they’re doing wrong, especially with regard to their own bodies and children, has a long and storied history; lactation research is just the latest iteration.

      • Mel

        There is also the entire trope that poor kids are screwed anyways so breastfeeding is even more important because there’s no way poor kids are ever going to be able to keep up with middle-class let alone wealthy kids.

        Call me cynical – but I saw plenty of wealthy kids I went to HS with going down seriously dangerous paths while their parents minimized/ignored any warning signs. Those wealthy kids also ended up in really bad places before getting help because parents could use money to kick the can down the road in ways that poorer families just plain can’t.