Childbirth, breastfeeding and moral panic

Scared shocked woman isolated on gray background

O tempora, O mores!

Oh, the times! Oh, the customs!

Cicero famously wrote these words more than 2000 years ago to deplore the breakdown of traditional values. He was referring to the political corruption of his day, but it has been used repeatedly since then to deplore any departure from the supposedly “good old days.”

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The discourse of natural mothering reflects moral panic at the possibility that women could control their own destinies.[/pullquote]

It could serve equally well as the motto of the present day natural parenting movement that is forever bemoaning the loss of traditional mothering values. Those are the values that characterized the “good old days” when women were immured in the home, restricted to reproduction and child rearing, unable to use their intellects and talents, and forcibly deprived of political and economic power.

I would argue that contemporary discussions of mothering is a moral panic. It is the emodiment of horror at the possibility that women can control their own destinies.

What is a moral panic?

A moral panic is a widespread fear, most often an irrational one, that someone or something is a threat to the values, safety, and interests of a community or society at large. Typically, a moral panic is perpetuated by news media, fueled by politicians, and often results in the passage of new laws or policies that target the source of the panic. In this way, moral panic can foster increased social control.

Moral panics are often centered on people who are marginalized in society due to their race or ethnicity, class, sexuality, nationality, or religion. As such, a moral panic often draws on known stereotypes and reinforces them…

Women were at the center of the most famous moral panic in American history, the Salem Witch Trials.

Accusations of witchcraft were directed first at women who were social outcasts of the society after a couple of local girls were afflicted with unexplained fits. After the initial arrests, accusations spread to other women in the community who expressed doubt about the accusations or who behaved in ways that did not seem supportive of guilt.

This particular moral panic served to reinforce and strengthen the social authority of local religious leaders, since witchcraft was perceived as a violation of and threat to Christian values, laws, and order.

A moral panic involves a target group that is vilified for ignoring social norms, authority figures that are threatened by the deviation and attempt to reassert control, a compliant media that amplifies the concerns of the threatened authority figures, and a political system willing to encode the authority figures’ wishes in policy positions and laws.

In the case of natural mothering, the target group is women who dare to pursue a life beyond exclusive child rearing, and the authority figures are both general and particular. The general authority figures are the keepers of “traditional” values such as religious figures and the particular authority figures are those who used to control social norms around childbirth, breastfeeding and parenting. Both can only regain their authority by browbeating women back into the home, reduced to obsessing the minutia of childbearing and rearing, instead of engaging with the wider world.

It is not an accident that the philosophies of natural childbirth and lactivism were created in response to religious concerns.

The philosophy of natural childbirth arose from the moral panic instigated by Grantly Dick-Read and his peers, who feared “race suicide” as Christian, white people of the “better” classes were engulfed in a tide of black and brown people who reproduced at a faster rate. He believed that the key to preserving the white race was to convince white women to have more children. They weren’t cooperating because they feared the pain of childbirth so he told them the pain was all in their heads; they weren’t cooperating because they thought there was more to life than childbearing and rearing so they needed to be re-educated.

He famously wrote:

The mother is the factory, and by education and care she can be made more efficient in the art of motherhood.

And, in case you didn’t get the point:

Woman fails when she ceases to desire the children for which she was primarily made. Her true emancipation lies in freedom to fulfil her biological purposes.

The language has changed, but the moral panic behind natural childbirth advocacy has not.

According to this position statement in the Journal of Perinatal Education, a Lamaze publication:

… The use of obstetric interventions in labor and birth has become the norm in the United States. More than half of all pregnant women receive synthetic oxytocin to induce or augment labor, which demands additional interventions to monitor, prevent, or treat side effects. Nationally, one third of women deliver their babies via cesarean, a major abdominal surgery with potential for serious short- and long-term health consequences. For the mothers these consequences include, but are not limited to, postoperative infections, chronic pain, future cesarean births, and placental complications that can lead to hemorrhage, hysterectomy, and rarely, death. Infant risks include respiratory distress, and in subsequent pregnancies maternal risks include increased likelihood of preterm birth and associated morbidity and mortality.

O tempora, O mores!

Never mind that these interventions save the lives of thousands of mothers and tens of thousands of babies each year in the US alone. The interventions threaten the authority of midwives (who can’t perform many of them) and they sever the link between childbearing and the excruciating pain that is deemed to be women’s punishment. When midwives insist that we must “preserve” physiologic birth they mean we must preserve their traditional authority.

Midwives and natural childbirth professionals like doulas and childbirth educators subvert science to reinforce the sense of moral panic, insisting that physiologic birth is better, healthier and safer when it is none of those things. There is no limit to what they will say to demonize C-sections and epidurals so they can maintain their power and authority over birth.

Similarly, the founders of La Leche League were religious fundamentalists who were in a moral panic about mothers of small children returning to the workforce. In the book La Leche League: At the Crossroads of Medicine, Feminism, and Religion, Jule DeJager Ward explains that the La Leche League was founded in 1956:

… by a group of Catholic mothers who sought to mediate in a comprehensive way between the family and the world of modern technological medicine. . . . [A] central characteristic of La Leche League’s ideology is that it was born of Catholic moral discourse on family life. . . . The League has very strong convictions about the needs of families. The League’s presentations and literature carry a strong suggestion that breast feeding is obligatory. Their message is simple: Nature intended mothers to nurse their babies; therefore, mothers ought to nurse.

La Leche League reflected traditional Catholic family values about the subservient role of women and their relegation to the home.

While the language of lactivism has changed, the moral panic has not.

Consider these tenets of contemporary LLL philosophy:

Mothering through breastfeeding is the most natural and effective way of understanding and satisfying the needs of the baby.

Mother and baby need to be together early and often to establish a satisfying relationship and an adequate milk supply.

In the early years the baby has an intense need to be with his mother which is as basic as his need for food…

The message is hardly subtle: the woman who leaves her baby to work is an inferior mother.

Lactivists have recruited the media to their moral panic:

No country in the world supports breastfeeding moms like they should, according to a new report released Tuesday by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

WHO and UNICEF recommend mothers breastfeed infants within the first hour of birth, exclusively for six months and continue breastfeeding, while adding complementary foods, until the child is at least 2-years-old. Breastfeeding has a host of health benefits, most notably improving a baby’s immunity…

By comparing breastfeeding rates around the world, the groups found rates nowhere near 100% in its Global Breastfeeding Scorecard, released at the start of World Breastfeeding Week.

O tempora, O mores!

Why do women “fail” to meet the WHO guidelines?

The “key reason” is the need to return to work away from their babies, the report says.

There it is again, the demonization of mothers who work outside the home.

Just give the lactivists more money and authority and they will put women back into their place:

The groups are asking for lower and middle-income countries to invest $4.70 per newborn ($5.7 billion) in initiatives, such as access to breastfeeding counseling and improving breastfeeding practices in hospitals, to increase the global rate of 6-month exclusive breastfeeding to 50% by 2025.

Of course the $5.7 billion could be used to extend maternity leave, but that wouldn’t shore up the power and authority of the breastfeeding industry.

The moral panic around contemporary childbirth and breastfeeding practices are no that different from the Salem Witch Trials. The driving force behind both is desperation to return to a subservient role for women and to bolster the authority of the avatars of traditional mothering values.

And that puts me in mind of a another foreign language phrase: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.