giving birth

Whether You Love Or Hate Natural Childbirth, You Need To Read This Essay

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Daily life in a South African township

Love or hate natural childbirth, this piece, “Using WOC In the Natural Childbirth Debate: A How-To Guide” should be required reading for anyone who likes to spout off about birth politics. Seriously, read it even if you don’t give a flying fig about what methods people use to get babies out of their bodies.  A smart piece of satire that appeared on Hood Feminism a few days ago, this essay by Michelle Bowen-Ziecheck puts the burn on the rhetorical racism of both natural childbirth advocates and their opponents.

Using the example of “Africa City” women (aka third-world women) she writes:

If you are a progressive in the Natural Childbirth Movement (or any other, for that matter), use Africa City women to promote the idea that “natural is better.” Talk about women who toil in the fields, squat down to give birth and return to picking rice. Or peanuts. Or anything else that can be picked. After all, the women of Africa City are resilient!  Strong. So strong that they do not even require support from the other women of Africa City. Or medication. Or comfort.  This example–of giving birth in the field–illustrates how over-reliant “we” have become on useless technology. Of course, you don’t expect “us” to be quite that strong.  We are not beasts of burden, after all. But from the comfort of our leather computer chairs, we can still make time to pay our respects to the women of Africa City for their unwavering and superhuman strength.

I am a doula, and I often see this kind of rationale within the birth world, that unmedicated birth (as I actually prefer to call it rather than “natural” birth, but we’ll keep calling it natural birth for the purposes of this post) is inherently better and also possible for every woman and every pregnancy, because just look at all the women in tribes in Africa who just squat right down and have their babies in the fields! No.

While that type of rhetoric is often used in a way that’s supposed to encourage women who are feeling scared or unsure about attempting to birth outside of the accepted medical model of childbirth in America—whether that be by opting for a home birth, a birth center birth, a freebirth, or an unmedicated birth in a hospital setting—it ultimately reinforces ignorant, racist stereotypes about third-world women and their lives. It’s similar to how attachment parenting devotees sometimes (not always!) fetishize women of color in third-world countries for their babywearing or exemplary extended breastfeeding.

Bowen-Ziecheck also brings up some important and uncomfortable truths about the way lower-income black women (whom she calls “women of The Ghetto”) are viewed and treated in the birth world. Namely, as uneducated and pitiable:

They are too busy being fat and sassy so they don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ no babies. Their white teeth shine between fat, sassy lips as they cackle about them crazy white ladies who love them some homebirths!…If Ghetto women are not sages in their own, simple-minded sort of way, then they are willfully ignorant, insolent, indolent and not worth including in any debate that requires higher brain function.

But Bowen-Ziecheck doesn’t leave those on the other side of the natural childbirth spectrum alone, either:

If you oppose the Natural Childbirth Movement (or any other, for that matter), use Africa City women to remind “us” of how bad “we” used to have it, before all of our live-saving medical advances….Use infant mortality statistics from the most war-torn countries to argue why a healthy woman from Portland shouldn’t give birth in her bathtub with a midwife who carries oxygen and a cell phone….All bad outcomes in Africa City are due to the lack of Medical Technology, never unrelated to it, and certainly never caused by it.


Basically, racists who use racism to justify their position on how and where women should give birth should stop being racist. Women of color and their lives, bodies, and babies aren’t your talking points or your means to support your view, whether you’re a homebirth advocate or an OB holding a scalpel. Ok, now stop reading my post and get yourself over to Hood Feminism to read Bowen-Ziecheck’s full essay.

Photo: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images