Sunday, June 24, 2007

Race, culture and childbirth

Until I started reading in depth about "natural" childbirth, I never realized the prominent role that race has played in the development of contemporary thought about childbirth. Patricia Jasen, in Race, Culture, and the Colonization of Childbirth in Northern Canada, gives a fascinating overview of the origin of racially based theories of pain in childbirth. Jasen situates claims of painless childbirth firmly within European imperialism:
Theories of racial difference are one of the oldest and most enduring features of European imperialism. They were inspired and perpetuated, in good part, by the desire to assess the level of European civilization and racial progress in comparison with more 'primitive', or less enlightened, peoples, and the history of ideas regarding aboriginal women and childbirth needs to be examined with this context in mind... [T]he notion that women in 'savage lands' were fundamentally different from European women gained a wide following through the myth of painless childbirth... [I]ts increasing acceptance during the nineteenth century, ... makes sense only in light of the fact that this image of the aboriginal woman satisfied a growing preoccupation, in European and Euro-American cultures, with both the anatomy of race and the politics of sexual difference.
Jansen posits that the myth of painless childbirth did important cultural work within European and American culture:
... [T]he myth of painless childbirth acquired an unprecedented following on both sides of the Atlantic around the middle of the nineteenth century and achieved a new level of abstraction from reality. The growing preoccupation with racial hierarchy and degeneracy did not preclude a belief that primitivism and health were somehow linked, and many Europeans and Euro-Americans sought to internalize the qualities of 'wildness'... which would counter the ill effects of civilized life. Outdoor sport would help preserve the qualities of 'natural man', but even more urgent was the quest for the 'natural woman'. There was a common fear that through some accident (or logic) of evolution, women of superior breeding experienced the most pain and debility in childbearing — that civilization, or over-civilization, made them less fit for reproduction. The survival of the race seemed to depend on alleviating this suffering and countering the growing reluctance, on the part of middle- and upper-class women, to undertake the maternal role.
Jasen describes the intellectual climate in which Grantly Dick-Read formulated his theories:
[T]he myth of painless childbirth was useful on a variety of rhetorical fronts. If regular physicians were anxious to establish that, under their care, the terrors of childbirth could be overcome, there were many alternative practitioners, health reformers, and feminists who argued that the process was by nature painless. They argued that if women learned the laws governing their own bodies, adopted sensible dress, and returned in their habits and diet to a more 'aboriginal condition' or 'state of nature', the dangers of childbirth would be removed. Such writers often resorted to the image of the 'Indian woman' who, 'when she feels the signs of coming labour, repairs to the nearest brook, gives birth to her child, it may be amid the snows of winter, washes it and herself in cold water, and is ready to resume her journey',.. They stressed that cultural, not innate anatomical differences, were responsible for women's plight...
So the fundamental premise of "natural" childbirth, that childbirth in nature is painless, is not only a fabrication, but it a fabrication designed to reinforce the idea of differences between inferior indigenous races and the superior white race. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that "natural" childbirth is a preoccupation of white women in first world countries. Women of other races and cultures never believed in the myth of painless childbirth and never accepted the idea of superior and inferior races separated by their reactions to pain.

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