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.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Puritans sought to “normalize” Puritanism.[/pullquote]

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.