Note: This is an analysis (and kind of summary) of the May 12th NPR article entitled “Focus On Infants During Childbirth Leaves U.S. Moms In Danger.” I suggest reading the article first (referenced at the end of the post).
Reading NPR’s article on maternal deaths, I was reminded of the Monty Python skit “Every Sperm is Sacred” from The Meaning Of Life. If you are wondering how I can bring up a comedy skit in an article about maternal mortality, bear with me for a moment.
In the skit, there is the large Irish Catholic family that has so many children that the father decides to sell them for medical experimentation – which obviously is relevant to the current right-wing attack on birth control. But there is also the Protestant English woman who can use condoms, so her situation must be so much better. When a Protestant woman arrives at the hospital to give birth, however, the male doctors ignore her completely to focus on the “machine that goes BEEEEEP,” eventually leaving the woman alone in a room, calling for help, surrounded by beeping machines. She is lost within the medicalization of pregnancy.
This skit is strangely relevant. As women in the United States continue to experience the highest rate of maternal deaths in the industrialized world, the neglect of women in childbirth has never been so apparent. Medicine is neglecting women in the US in two intersecting ways: by the continued medicalization of pregnancy (as evidenced by a continued over-reliance on C-sections and an almost complete lack of holistic practices), and by focusing almost exclusively on the infants.
I have written before of the high maternal death rates in the United States, and talked about causes and solutions. I do believe that the root of the issue is that in patriarchal societies, pregnancy has traditionally revolved around men. In both religious and secular life, men are the individuals who traditionally reaped the benefits of women’s reproductive labor, and traditionally men have been the individuals congratulated with cigars and pats on the back. Historically, Western society and medicine did not even describe childbirth as a labor of women. The DOCTOR delivered the baby, not the woman – it was a complete appropriation of childbirth from female midwives.
Growing up, my elderly neighbor told me about her experience giving birth in the 1950s and 1960s. The doctors, she explained, were concerned mostly with the lives of the men. They attempted to move the delivery along according to the scheduled plans of the husband, not the health of woman. “It was all about the husbands” is literally what my neighbor said. Furthermore, it was not the woman’s decision to use birth control or to plan pregnancies. Whether in medicine or her personal life, women’s reproduction was dictated by men.
I would say that we have come a long way since the 1950s and 1960s – except is seems we have not. The male medical structure of obstetrics and gynecology still exists, and it is being reinforced through religion and medicine. Consider the current administration in which ONCE AGAIN only men are making top decisions about women’s health in the United States. Trump and his deplorable administration want to cut both maternal and infant care from healthcare. They are defunding Planned Parenthood without caring that unplanned pregnancies are more likely to lead to maternal deaths – or that prenatal health is of the utmost importance to not just the fetus but to the woman. Furthermore, organizations and businesses continue to insist that denying women birth control is “freedom of religion,” which is a denial of the importance of a woman controlling her own reproductive health.
Doctors continue to push for C-sections, despite worse recovery outcomes, reflecting the dangerous medicalization of pregnancy rooted in patriarchal medicine, and completely ignoring the importance of holistic practices which are often the focus of female-dominated midwifery. Infant health continues to trump maternal health. This reflects the right wing belief that once a woman is pregnant, she has ceased to become an individual and is but a vessel for her baby. It’s not for nothing that this laser-focus on fetuses and infants at the expense of the mother coincides with the rise of the Christian right and their backlash against feminist gains – ESPECIALLY in the reproductive realm. As right wing conservatives continue to gain power in the United States (more and more often un-democratically), women continue to be marginalized within the context of childbirth.
Perhaps most problematic, death from childbirth continues to be a “private” issue instead of a public health crisis. This should remind everyone of the continuing fight against domestic violence. It was not until the rise of second-wave feminism that domestic violence shelters were created and domestic violence began to be framed as a public health issue. Yet, like maternal deaths, a large chunk of society continues to view domestic violence as a private manner. This is quite convenient for those who want to keep females as a second class. When an issue is a private matter, society cannot provide a solution.
Whatever gains American women made through second-wave feminism are steadily being reversed. The personal must become political again. I see this in reactions to rape cases such as Brock Turner, but modern feminism continues to be, for the most part, in retreat from focusing on reproductive health care. In fact, I am not sure that many feminists under the age of thirty even UNDERSTAND the role reproduction serves in upholding the patriarchy.
Recently, I got into a Facebook discussion about how gender is not neutral for women. At some point, I commented that patriarchy wouldn’t exist if men didn’t want to control the bodies of women for reproduction – and this includes replacing female midwives almost completely with male doctors and male viewpoints of medicine. Of course, I was accused of being transphobic, of “cisplaining,” and of not understanding feminism (seriously). But what had me truly flabbergasted was one young woman’s comment that “your version” of feminism, that which focuses on reproduction, excludes not just transwomen but also women such as herself who aren’t reproducing.
I thought to myself, should I explain to this individual that this isn’t “my version” of feminism but the accepted reason for the existence of patriarchy, and not just by feminism – but also by sociology and anthropology? This wasn’t controversial until the rise of queer theory. Should I explain to her that I, too, have no intention of ever reproducing – but you cannot “not reproduce” yourself out of patriarchy? Reproductive rights also cover birth control, which means if we lose that right women such as myself and her may very well end up reproducing against our will. It’s the POTENTIAL of reproducing that brings ALL females under the umbrella of patriarchy. You get treated as second-class citizens under patriarchy whether or not you reproduce, menstruate, have a hysterectomy, etc.
This comment also reflects the bizarre new feminist belief that if a subject matter doesn’t cover every single person’s “lived reality,” it is exclusive. Liberal (and thus mainstream) feminism is trying to be so inclusive towards transwomen and so individualistic towards “empowerment’ and “agency” that it is paralyzed. Liberal feminism is trying so hard not to define women by their biology that feminists are ignoring the fact that women are DYING of their biology.
Mainstream feminism is incorrect in its belief that the purpose of feminism is to re-define the idea of woman as divorced from their biology. That was never the intention of feminism. The intention of feminism is that women not be LIMITED by their biology. Thus the quotes “I have a brain and a uterus and I use both” and “I can’t breed in captivity.” Feminism never meant to DENY the reality of female biology. Feminism means to change society’s PERCEPTION of females and female biology. The two are not the same thing.
As I said in my first post about maternal deaths in the United States, childbirth should be front and center in feminism because if women are dead, then obviously they cannot reap the benefits of feminism. Currently, as described in NPR’s article, improvements in maternal care are fragmented and delayed, hindered by the uniquely American “state rights,” by medicine’s refusal to incorporate holistic practices, and by the Right’s intense over-focus on fetus and infant well-being. Although there is a federal bipartisan bill entitled “Preventing Maternal Deaths Act of 2017,” I have no faith it will receive attention from this administration, much less pass. Improvements in maternal healthcare need to be centralized and uniform, and need to be treated as a society-wide public health crisis.
This is exactly why feminism was created – to centralize WOMEN’S issues and bring these issues into the public consciousness of society. Ideally, then, feminism is the perfect vehicle for empowering women’s healthcare, for demanding the federal government and the medical industrial complex address women’s health in a holistic, effective, female-friendly manner, and that religion is absent from any discussion involving reproduction. Yet arguments over whether female reproduction should even be INCLUDED as a main aspect of feminism continue unabated. Liberal feminists are buckling to statements that women’s biology is irrelevant or doesn’t even exist – all to accommodate different “gender identities.”
I do hope that eventually these liberal feminists and their trans allies see that as feminism is neutralized to completely accept transwomen, as the words “women” and “female” are literally erased from women’s healthcare – women as a class are losing the rights for which they fought so hard, particularly concerning reproduction.
If I read an article about female reproduction and think “hey, this skit from 1983 totally illustrates this point,” then we are obviously not moving forward, but backwards.