Decolonize Childbirth- Race & Obstetric Violence

To  Friends and Allies (2)

Giving birth is some life altering shit. It can be a transcendental, mind warping, ecstatic, or painful experience. The child that you house on the inside of you is exiting your womb. Women should be able to give birth in safe spaces that respect and honor their intuition and power. Unfortunately, our medical practices and representations of birth have transformed the birthing process. Birth in America is over medicalized and rooted in fear and obstetric violence.

32.7% of all births in the United States are C-sections despite the fact that 1) c-sections increase risks for mothers and infants and 2) the World Health Organization argues that the C-section rate should be 5-10%. The territories are hardly doing better. The c-section rate in the U.S. Virgin Islands was 29.3% in 2013 and Puerto Rico’s rate during the same year was 48.4%. These territorial rates have declined over recent years and it is important that they continue to do so.

It is also important that we remember to hold a race and colonial conscious approach to our pursuits of reproductive autonomy and justice for two reasons. 1) Healing racialized and gendered trauma is a part of decolonization and 2) Colorblind approaches to reproductive rights harm all of us.

Decolonization calls us to work through the trauma inflicted by the colonial project and right as many wrongs as we can. Sexual violence was a main component of slavery and colonialism. (See Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender and the New Racism; Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty; Angela Davis’ Women, Race, and Class)

Under slavery whites had unbridled reproductive control. Reproduction had a lot to do with the perpetuation of oppression. Slavery was predicated on, “the dehumanization of Africans on the basis of race and the control of women’s sexuality and reproduction- Dorothy Roberts pg 23 in Killing the Black Body

Often, reproductive rights groups treat the institutionalization of birth and these infringements on our reproductive rights as though they are recent problems. They are not. The state sanctioned regulation of motherhood and the birthing process was routinely practiced during slavery and colonialism.The  model for legislating and practicing obstetric violence was refined on marginalized people, namely Black, Brown, and poor people, before it became a mainstream practice. People of color were experimented on without their permission. Women of color were often sterilized without their consent to test the impact of contraceptives before they could be made available to white women. (See Roberts, Davis, and Hill Collins for references) As Roberts so eloquently points out in her text, the underlying logic of birth intervention that suggests that the fetus should be legally regarded as a separate being from the mother and protected at all costs also dates back to the treatment of enslaved women on the plantation. Our activism has to reflect the disparate treatment of mothers on the basis of race, class, and other markers of difference.

Though there are some subsections that get it right, the majority of movements (natural birth, free birth, and home birth movements) that try to empower birthing women often display racially biased neoliberalism.

  • Women of color and non-Western women’s birthing knowledge is often appropriated and commodified as sites of “discovery”. (Aaminah Shakur speaks on this extensively)
  •  Colorblindness prevents us from acknowledging all of the ways in which some women (women of color, poor women, immigrants, etc) are disproportionately targeted and subjected to obstetric violence. (See Khiara Bridges’ text, Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialization)
  • Women of color often speak about experiencing racial violence in white normative birthing spaces geared towards healthier and safer birthing options.
  • Good motherhood is constructed as “white” while women of color are often stereotyped as being “bad” mothers and objects for medical inquiry. (See Bridges, Roberts, and Hill Collins on this note) This stereotype often manifests in representations of birth and motherhood as the vast majority of books for expecting women feature white women while women of color are more visible in texts on obstetrics and gynecology.
  • Because of prevailing stereotypes about women of color, poor women, non-Western women, and immigrants, these women are disproportionately criminalized during birth (Bridges).
  • Many of the texts that call for physiological birth often compare the experiences of “civilized” financially secure women to their “poor”, “of color”, and “uncivilized” counterparts. For example, Laura Shanley of Unassisted Childbirth and Grantly Dick-Read of Birth Without Fear both rely on colonial descriptions of “primitive” women’s pain free childbirth to make the case that birth is safe. They don’t interrogate the ways in which the prevailing narrative that women of color don’t feel pain becomes used as an entry point for violence as women of color are not given anesthesia at the same rate as white women because of said stereotypes. They also don’t interrogate the ways in which this narrative reinforces constructs of “safe births” and “intervention free births” as a privilege rather than a right.
  • Our colorblind approaches aren’t working for all of us because C- Section rates in recent years declined for White women while c-section rates increased for Black and Hispanic women in the U.S.

I’ll stop here. However, the point that I’m making is simply this– we have to decolonize birth and this requires an intersectional (race, class, sexuality, geo political location, etc) approach. It means that we have to trust natural, physiological birth and we have to be conscious of how power operates when we do so.

I can tell you this much…

Power is not colorblind. The history of obstetric violence is not colorblind either.

How can we grapple with the legacies of this troubling history in our territory? Are we creating our own models of autonomous birthing practices or are we following the direction of an American obstetric model that is arguably outdated, violent, and racially biased?

I’ll speak on “How to Decolonize Childbirth” in a future post. This one is designed to contextualize why decolonizing childbirth is even necessary.



3 responses to “Decolonize Childbirth- Race & Obstetric Violence

  1. Pingback: Decolonize Childbirth- Race & Obstetric Violence – little by little·

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