Saturday, February 27, 2010

Andrea Smith: beyond pro-life vs. pro-choice

Andrea Smith is a Cherokee scholar, feminist, and anti-violence activist. A lot of her academic work focuses on the intersections of Native studies, feminist theory, and theology. She co-founded INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, the Boarding School Healing Project, and the Chicago chapter of Women of All Red Nations. Smith is brilliant; I strongly recommend all of her writings. She spoke at my school a few years ago on state violence against women of color, and I got to have lunch with her.

Anyway, today I read a paper she wrote in the National Women's Study Assocation (NWSA) Journal titled, "Beyond Pro-Choice Versus Pro-Life: Women of Color and Reproductive Justice." I have always been pro-choice. In high school, I volunteered at Planned Parenthood. This paper really opened my eyes and made me think more critically about the problems with both movements. She argues that ironically, the pro-choice and pro-life movements "are more similar than they are different." Both movements marginalize women of color, poor women, women with disabilities, and women from other marginalized communities.

On the side of the pro-life movement, she points out that even if one does believe that a fetus is a life, it doesn't necessarily follow that someone should be punishment for it. She proceeds to debunk the criminal justice system in the United States, also known as the prison industrial complex. Basically, since the prison system in the United States completely fails to address social problems (except to make them worse), it is actually counterproductive for someone who supports life to support the criminalization of abortion. And it is defintely counterproductive for women of color and other marginalized women, because the prison industrial complex is extremely racist.

Like I said, I considered myself pro-choice, so it's not like I need to be persuaded against aligning myself with the pro-life movement. But it was interesting to read a new argument instead of the usual ones that constantly get rehashed. Which reminds me of why this topic has everything to do with religion and childbirth. I am becoming a birth doula. Doulas are there to support whatever choices a mother makes. But how can we talk about birthing options and choices when not every woman has a choice? (See previous posts for more on that.) And the choice to not have a child is not a separate issue; that is also a reproductive choice. So social issues like this are certainly relevant to childbirth. Furthermore, the pro-life movement makes many religion-based claims. It's important to keep in mind that these sociopolitical issues are very tied up in people's religious and spiritual beliefs.

Her analysis of the pro-choice movement is what really surprised me. I had known that Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was involved in Eugenics, but I thought that Planned Parenthood and the pro-choice movement in general now made an effort to cut ties with Eugenics and to truly support women of marginalized communities. Smith argues that the pro-choice movement "often supports population control policies and the development of dangerous contraceptives that are generally targeted towards communities of color." She provides solid evidence that Planned Parenthood is invested in population control and sterilization in third-world countries.

Finally, back to the question of having true reproductive choice, she points out that "both positions do not question the capitalist system—they focus solely on the decision of whether or not a woman should have an abortion without addressing the economic, political, and social conditions that put women in this position in the first place." Definitely read this paper if you get a chance. You can find it here, but unfortunately access is restricted to those with a subscription to Project Muse. I can send a pdf to your e-mail address, though.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Demographics of Home Birth

In the second chapter of Blessed Events, “Cultural Contexts of Home Birth,” Klassen describes the demography of home birth in the United States, tells a brief history of childbirth practices in America, and frames home birth in the context of anthropological studies on the meanings of childbirth. The demographical sketch confirmed my observation that most home-birthing women are well-educated, middle-class, and white. They are more likely than hospital-birthing women to be married, and less likely to smoke or drink while pregnant.

But what surprised me is that home-birthing women cluster in two groups. To quote Klassen, who cites a 1995 study, “The first group is the ‘older or more formally educated mothers who are likely to prepare themselves prenatally for a home birth.’ The second is made up of ‘those who are younger or have less formal education for whom home birth may be a result of lack of planning or other manifestation of problems with health care access.’” Race plays a big role in the distinction as well. According to Klassen, African-American birth-birthers tend to have less formal education and poorer birth outcomes than other African-American women. They struggle for access to good quality health care. In situations where women birthing at home have to be transported to a hospital, white women are “much more likely to know that they have adequate insurance that will both pay for their hospital stay and grant them access to health care that they need, and they are much less likely to suffer from racism in the hospital environment.” Klassen reminds us that choice is a privilege that only some people have.

There are people working to make birthing options a right, not a privilege, for all women. Miriam Zoila Pérez, a self-proclaimed “radical doula,” keeps a blog that deals with issues like access, choice, birth activism, and reproductive rights. The Doula Project is an organization in New York City that “provides free compassionate care and emotional, physical, and informational support to people across the spectrum of pregnancy.” I have heard that many doulas are willing to charge clients on a sliding scale. I have one friend who is going to be a volunteer doula. Once I become certified and get more experience, I definitely hope to make my services accessible.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

birth plans and videos

Last week I was looking forward to my second Bradley class. When I decided to take the course, I was excited to learn more about childbirth, but I still feared that a weekly two-hour class would just become one more thing on my to-do list. To give you an idea of how busy I am: this semester I’m working two part-time jobs, writing my senior thesis, taking three college courses, applying to a teaching assistantship in Spain, participating in Hillel activities, and serving as a representative for student government. Enough about me—the point is that I couldn’t wait to go to the Bradley class last Thursday night. Like I mentioned before, it feels really special to observe someone’s pregnancy. But on top of that, I think the class is so pleasant because the instructor, in keeping with the Bradley Method philosophy, makes it really relaxing and positive.

The topic of the class was birth plans. The instructor strongly recommends creating a birth plan—a plan that you give to everyone on your birth team. You outline all of your wishes for the birth to ensure that your team knows what you want. We looked at a bunch of different examples, which I’m sure you can also find online. Aside from the content of the plan itself, the main question to consider is: “would somebody actually read all of this?” You may want to use a bright-colored sheet of paper, limit the plan to a single sheet, use bullet points, put some of your medical information at the top so it looks like an official medical form, or separate the points into different categories. Here you can select options from a checklist to create your own birth plan.

In the beginning of the class, we watched a video of a really beautiful natural homebirth. I will find out the title so I can share it with you. [ETA: It was called Birth Day.] The video itself was beautifully done—it featured music, artsy camerawork, and good editing, unlike the ones I’ve seen online. The mother, who happened to be a midwife herself, spoke poetically about birth as a creative process. I can’t remember what exactly she said, but it made me realize that not only do we ascribe religious meanings to birth, but also we constantly use birth metaphors to talk about religion. Just as birth can be a religious experience, religion is often described as a birth experience. I realized that nothing she said was explicitly religious, but I read religion into it. Creating life—that’s a pretty literal definition of birth, but it conjures up associations with creation stories, innocence, conversion, spiritual rebirth, renewal, and oneness with the universe. In Orthodox Judaism, women are considered closer to God because we have the ability to create and sustain life.

Monday, February 15, 2010

feminism and women as birthers

In Chapter One of Blessed Events, “Procreation Stories,” Klassen lays out the purpose of her study, the issues at stake, and the questions she hopes to answer. She frames the study within the context of childbirth in North America, where nowadays medicalized hospital birth is ubiquitous. She focuses on women who chose to birth (an intentionally active verb) at home because these women all share a strong conviction that childbirth is a natural process and not a disease.

Klassen points to two tensions that guide her exploration of the religious meanings these women ascribe to childbirth: “one, tensions between feminist and traditionalist appraisals of the symbolic meaning of birth, and two the kinds of agency afforded to or denied women as they derive religious meanings from childbirth.” (pg. 4) These tensions underlie much of my academic interest in the topic of childbirth, and I want to keep them in mind throughout my own exploration. In light of these tensions, Klassen gets at the crux of childbirth as an issue that implicates women as gendered and religious beings. This is important:

“does this supreme valuing of women’s roles as birthers and nurturers define women solely as procreators and caretakers, or does it open up new realms of cultural and social power for women?”

Scholars of gender studies and religious studies, as well as religious women themselves, have been asking this same question in different ways for a long time. It is a constant struggle in Jewish feminist discourse and practice. One the one hand, there is the traditionalist view, which essentializes women’s roles and, you could say, reduces them to baby-making machines. On the other hand, there is the feminist view, which obliterates separate gender roles and runs the risk of not recognizing or valuing real differences. When gender is completely ignored, male is still normative. For example, Jewish feminists want to increase women’s participation in ritual practices. Some women think the solution is to let women do everything that men already do. Men wear kippot (skullcaps)? Then women should start wearing kippot, they say. Other feminists argue that this egalitarian method just encourages women to be more like men. What about women’s specific needs that aren’t met by these rituals? Instead, they argue, we should create special rituals for women. But what would these rituals look like? Wouldn’t they just reinscribe the gender roles we’re trying to escape? If they are women’s rituals, how are we defining “woman,” and who are we excluding by that definition?

When you extend this reasoning to the question Klassen posed about valuing women’s roles as birthers and nuturers, you can imagine how complicated the answer is. In fact, I don’t think there’s a definite answer, but I think that for people invested in childbirth and feminism, this constant tension exists. I am eager to discover the conclusion Klassen reaches.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bradley Method Course

Tonight I went to my childbirth education class for the first time! For the doula certification, I am required to observe 12 hours of an approved childbirth education class. The local hospital offers several approved classes, such as ICEA and Lamaze, for around $75. I found a local birth center, run by midwives and doulas, that offers a Bradley Method course. It costs $250 per couple, but I am observing it for free--I just had to purchase the workbook for $20. I am taking the class every Thursday evening for two hours, for the next six weeks. The instructor is really kind. Her class is relaxed, fun, and discussion-oriented. There were six couples in the class. It felt like a very different atmosphere than what I’m used to, being around all of those pregnant women—sort of like when I see elderly people or pet dogs on my college campus. Plus, I'm so used to attending classes that are ... not boring (my professor is reading), but mundane. This class is different. You can sense that these couples are going through some sort of rite of passage. It feels really special.

The Bradley Method focuses on teaching a "coach" to support the mother mentally, emotionally, and physically. The entire method is based on this partnership; someone else needs to be there throughout the pregnancy and birth to support her. The couple also learns about exercises, massage techniques, and nutrition. The goal is for the mother to be healthy, confident, and comfortable so that she can have a positive, safe birth experience without the use of medication. In our class, all of the coaches were the women's husbands. While I’m sure your coach could be your female significant other or a good friend, the Bradley Method seems to assume that the mother will have a committed, monogamous, male partner; it is based on a heterosexual family unit.

Living in a heterosexist world, it's hard to escape from essentialist language. I have found it's even harder to escape in the world of childbirth. If we acknowledge that gender is a social construction distinct from sex, then we have to acknowledge that not every woman is capable of giving birth and that some men do give birth. My inclination, which has been ingrained in my head since birth--is to refer to pregnant people as women. It sounds very strange to say "pregnant people." I think that the message of the natural birth movement is a feminist one. Women can be their own experts at childbirth; they don't need a [male] doctor to do it for them. They are strong enough to give birth without pain medication. They have been giving birth to humanity for millennia without it. However, to say that women's ultimate power and essence lies in their ability to create life, while beautiful, also runs the risk of reducing women to their bodies and biological functions. It also defines woman in a way that excludes many women. Is this tension reconcilable?

Monday, February 1, 2010


I just completed the breastfeeding class requirement for DONA certification. Yay! I was planning to attend an in-person class, which are often offered in conjunction with the birth doula class, but I just discovered that there is a free online option, called the "breastfeeding basics class." You simply register at and read through the seven different sections on childbirth. There is a pre- and post-evaluation, in the form of a short multiple-choice quiz, for each section. You print and save your evaluation score upon completion of each section as documentation for the certification. Taking an online class might seem easier, but actually the in-person course is three hours long, and it took me longer than three hours to finish this one.

I really enjoyed taking it; I learned so much about breastfeeding. The course dispels many widespread misconceptions about breastfeeding. For example, many women feel incapable of breastfeeding. They are afraid that they won't be able to produce enough milk, or they think that because their sister had trouble breastfeeding, they will too. In reality, any amount of breast milk is better than none for the infant--and breastfeeding problems are not hereditary. Usually the mother just needs more guidance if she is having trouble; she may be feeding in a bad position, not feeding often enough, or not soothing her breasts properly.

The course also tackled the controversial issue of breastfeeding in public. Even though the practice is legally protected in 47 states, breasts are so sexualized that people feel uncomfortable around women who are breastfeeding, and the women sometimes feel embarrassed. The course recommended assuring the woman that breastfeeding is legal and important for the baby. You can also suggest the woman find a discrete area and use a blanket to cover her breast if the she feels more comfortable that way.

Orthodox Jewish women, among other women, adhere to strict standards of modesty (tzniut), so I began to wonder what the halakhic (Jewish legal) view was on breastfeeding in public. I did a quick Google search out of curiosity. I am no expert on halacha (Jewish law), but it appears that breastfeeding in public is fine as long as the mother covers herself with a blanket. Now, even though it seems to be halakhically permissible (at least according to some people?), it still makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and women are sometimes afraid to do it. The really heated debate, though, concerns whether a woman should be allowed to breastfeed in the synagogue. Some feel that the woman's access to religion is at stake, but some people feel strongly that it disrupts everyone else trying to pray, that it is immodest to do in a sanctuary, or that it shouldn't be allowed because eating is not allowed in a sanctuary. A "mother in Israel" addresses the issue of tznius and breastfeeding on her blog. "Orthomom" discusses a Conservative ruling that women may breastfeed in the sanctuary.