The main strand of the alternative birth movement in the US which has been lead primarily by white, middle class women since the 1970s often conceptualizes their work as a pursuit of liberty and happiness. Publications and participants characterize the movement as ensuring a woman’s right to an empowering pregnancy and birth experience. The concepts of one’s rights are inexorably tied to notions of liberty, but much like the historical roots of freedom (and lack thereof based on race and gender) in our country, rights have been granted by the powerful only to those deemed fully human and deserving of happiness. Happiness and rights are permitted by the systems of power currently in place only in forms still confined within the status quo.
Oparah and Bonaparte (2016) point out the ways in which the birthing consumer’s right to empowerment narrative has emerged and succeeded in public discourse precisely because it doesn’t challenge the deeper social and economic forces at work which serve to subjugate and ignore the most vulnerable pregnant people (15). Indeed they argue that “legislators opposed to feminism…and to left-wing countercultural tendencies have found it possible to support the consumer right of (white, middle-class) mothers to ‘purchase’ the birth experience they desire” (14).
Empowerment is presumed by many in the modern white, middle class midwifery movement to be a desirable goal leading to happiness and therefore to be pursued in the name of all women. The tendency in the second-wave feminist movement to claim to speak for all women while not taking “black women’s concerns seriously” (13) has emerged throughout the movement for reproductive rights. In 2003, the Feminist Majority Foundation and others agreed to change the name of the protest march they were planning in response to criticisms from diverse stakeholders that the movement needs to broaden its perspectives and goals. Black women and others on the margins, it was argued, are not available to simply protest for their right to safe abortion. Instead, the diverse organizations courted wanted recognition that they are literally fighting for women’s lives. As a result of the broad coalition formed, the March for Women’s Lives (2004) was one of the largest protests of all time in Washington, DC. I see this example as illustrative of the ways in which the birth justice movement is more about life than about liberty and happiness. Interestingly, life is the banner taken up by the inspiring present day grassroots movement Black Lives Matter. Of course this second Civil Rights movement is also about liberty and happiness (in the form of dignity and respect), but who has time to espouse liberty when you and your loved ones are so busy fighting for your lives.
An ignorant response to the Black Lives Matter movement has been “#alllivesmatter.” If “all lives matter”ed as much as the lives of white wealthy people, particularly men, then the health care disparities in the US based on race could not possibly exist to the extent that they do. Reforms to the US healthcare system have consistently benefited racial and ethnic minorities less than their white counterparts and this trend continues today. US statistics on maternal and infant mortality and morbidity demonstrate that babies and women, especially black and brown babies and women, do not fare nearly as well as whites. While the US healthcare system is in many ways failing women and infants in general when compared to other developed countries, women and babies of color are dying at alarmingly higher rates than white women and babies. The statistics on which my above claims rest have been around since the previous century. Despite awareness of health care disparities and social determinants of health in some sectors of the US health care non-system, meaningful changes that affect peoples’ lives on the ground have been slow to develop.
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Oparah, J. C., & Bonaparte, A. D. (Eds.). (2015). Birthing Justice: Black Women, Pregnancy, and Childbirth. Routledge.