The President of ICAN, Pam Udy, had a conversation with a person, I’ll call him Mr. Smith (name changed to protect us, the innocent), in which he told her that ICAN would never be welcome to speak at any event he organized because “we don’t have initials behind our name and no one wants to listen to women crying about their birth experience.” He believes that it is a priority to have an event where mainstream medical professionals (OBs, etc) would attend, so as to foster dialog between them and the “activists” who are concerned about the state of maternity care in this country. Pam quite coherently explained to him why it is important for ICAN to have a voice and why we cannot continue to let the “medical experts” have the last say in what is best for mothers and babies. He responded with a series of questions, which I have included below. More importantly to me, answering his questions allowed me to think through the role that ICAN does play versus the role that ICAN MUST play, if any of the things we all agree are problems are to be solved.
What makes us believe we speak for the majority of women?
Superficially, I don’t think we do, but only because the majority of women who’ve had traumatic births (not just cesareans) do not acknowledge that — for any number of reasons, but one big one is that they think they are the only one who feels that way and they are ashamed of it. If they knew other women are also unhappy, then they wouldn’t be ashamed. We are the voice telling women it’s ok to be unhappy about something that was a bad experience and that it doesn’t make them a bad mother to be unhappy, nor does it say anything about whether they love their child.
What makes us think our experiences are representative of most women’s experience?
There are quite a few studies that look at "satisfaction" after birth and it is quite easily demonstrated that if you look out farther than 3 months, women with interventive/surgical births aren’t very happy about it. But you have to ask them, they won’t volunteer that information (for the reasons listed above). Is this "most" women’s experience? I don’t know….but as the cesarean rate climbs higher and higher, it’s getting to be more and more women’s experience….do we have to wait until it’s a big majority before we say anything?
What number of women can we say we speak for?
I’ll answer that with another question — what is the threshold at which we have a moral obligation to speak? If only 5% of women identify as traumatized, is that too small a number? Is 10% big enough? (Would we be ok with 5% of all women being abused in a domestic partnership?) Or do we need to wait until over 50% of women have traumatic births before we are obligated to speak? If the cesarean rate is 30+% and half of those women are unhappy about having one (which I believe is a conservative estimate), are those 15% not important enough to speak to and for? If we know that cesarean surgery isn’t the optimal way to have a child, do we have any obligation to speak out about that? If a woman and/or the culture she lives in don’t perceive her experience as abusive and yet it is, do we keep silent? (Some cultures think its ok for a husband to beat his wife and children, so is it ok in that culture?) What about the babies? The evidence continues to accumulate that interventive births, including elective non-medically indicated cesareans are bad for babies — who speaks for them? Do we not speak, since they aren’t indicating that they are traumatized by their birth experience?
Do we only speak for the women who identify as traumatized? Or do we speak for the women who don’t understand that they were traumatized, and yet behave in ways that show they were? (Look at the studies that show women with cesareans elect to have fewer children). Many women in the cultures that allow for wife-beating probably think its "ok" for the most part, even if they really don’t want to be beaten. So we don’t say anything about it?
Mr. Smith doesn’t get to decide what the threshold is. I suspect the notion of setting such a threshold for some other issue would be repugnant to him (female circumcision? male circumcision? domestic violence? lack of access to medical care? hunger? homelessness? child abuse?). The notion that abusive maternity care isn’t in exactly the same category as other forms of abuse is beyond offensive to me. When Mr. Smith persists in calling us "angry women" as an excuse to deny us a voice, he is actively participating in the insidiously persistent patriarchal and misogynistic culture that has in the past considered things like violence against women, lack of political voice or power, lack of property rights, unequal pay, unequal educational opportunities, perfectly reasonable and defensible, and which STILL does condone versions of all these inequalities. I’d be willing to bet a sizable sum that Mr. Smith doesn’t identify himself as a narrow-minded misogynistic fool but the more I think about his "concerns", the more I do identify him as such.
The hypocrisy and willfully close minded attitude are astounding in someone who claims to be concerned about the state of maternity care and childbirth in the U.S. He can support a session titled "Why Men Leave: The Epidemic of Disappearing Dads" that identifies a condition called "Male Postpartum Abandonment Syndrome" and then complain that if we speak out, the MD’s won’t come? What exactly is it that he thinks we want to say? Mr. Smith has bought into the lie that we are a bunch of angry, hysterical women who are only reacting out of irrational emotion. And he conveniently doesn’t notice that the MD’s aren’t coming to these forum/conferences/congresses already, and that they aren’t likely to. Mainstream medical professionals aren’t going to attend something that bears no resemblance to what they must believe is reality (that what they do is necessary and right and to do otherwise would be unethical and unsafe). A sprinkling of MD’s speaking on various birth-friendly topics at this last event certainly didn’t prove me wrong. I’d go so far as to say that my talk on uterine suturing techniques is more likely to attract an MD than any talk on water birth or male PPD. And yet, I’m sure my initials aren’t the letters Mr. Smith is looking for. It is interesting to look at a list of speakers from this last event, to see just what collection of “initials” Mr. Smith did find acceptable:
Karen H. Strange, Midwife
Barbara Harper, RN
Dianne Garland, RM
Cornelia Enning, Midwife
Laura Erickson, LM, CPM
Sarah Buckley, MD
Kathy Forrister, RN
Ellen Margles, CNM
Duncan Neilson, MD
Sandra Bardsley, RN, LCCE
Robert Newman (who’s implied Y-chromosome seems to be the right letter)
Mark Fisher (of a Prime Insurance Corporation and owner of a Y-chromosome)
Robbie Davis Floyd, PhD
Yeshi Neumann, CNM
Carol Penn, DO
Amy Gilliland, Doula Trainer and researcher
Marcy Axness, PhD
Joe Dispenza, DC
Alan Huber (Y-chromosome anyone?)
John W. Travis, MD
Susan Roberts, ND
Stephanie Cave, MD
Eneyda Spradlin-Ramos, BA, LMT, CD
Judith Rooks, CNM, MPH
Zina Bakhareva, MD
Jose Louis Grefnes, MD
Fernando Molina MD
Nils Bergman, MD
Jeanette Schwartz, RNC
Beth Genly, CNM
Zinaida Bakhareva, MD
Bianca Lepori (an architect! and no Y-chromosome — how open-mined and daring)
Nikki Lee, RN, IBCLC
Joni Nichols, BS, MS, CCE, CD (DONA), (CBI)
Jose Louis Grefnes, MD
Veerle DePauw, MD
Sandy Williamson, CNM, MSN
Richard Morris, Administrator
Lonnie Morris, CNM
Anna Verwaal, RN, CD
Susan Jenkins, JD
Karen Strange, CPM
Anna Verwaal, RN, CD
11 MDs. And then a collection of other professional degrees/certifications that will not impress your average Fellow of ACOG in the slightest, not to mention a few that have no degree/certification that I can see. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doubting that these presenters are very knowledgeable or even experts in the topics they are presenting (I’ve heard many of them speak and they are extremely knowledgeable in their fields of interest/expertise) but the excuse that we don’t have "initials" after our names is a smokescreen behind which Mr. Smith is hiding his prejudice and fear.
It is about time the established "birth activists" quit their vaguely masturbatory inside-crowd-only exercises in preaching to the choir and realize that they’ve been doing exactly the same thing for decades now and things are only getting worse for the women and babies they purport to care about. It is about time they realized that without the consumer, they are going to continue to cycle through a round of conferences and congresses and forums every year or two, saying the same things over and over and over and making absolutely no difference whatsoever and never registering at all on the mainstream radar screen (medical or otherwise). They actually need us a lot more than we need them, since frankly, I can’t see that they’ve helped us much with all their pontificating about safe birth and birth choices and how to have a satisfying birth experience, etc etc etc. We can offer them something new, something different, something that isn’t the same old same old ineffective inaction. We don’t have to tell our sob-story birth stories…we can speak just as knowledgeably on any number of birth topics (from the academic/scientific to the alternative and controversial) as any "doula trainer" or "LM" and thus gain both acceptance from the old guard and wider "name" recognition as an organization that is much more than a “bunch of angry women". We bring in the consumer — the women who’ll write the letters, switch providers, picket hospitals, support the struggling midwife and her independent birth center, vote with their feet. That’s something the experts haven’t managed to pull off yet and I don’t think they can. The consumer, the woman who doesn’t have any qualifications other than a scar, on her belly, perineum or heart, is the KEY, without which, all of this is just a bunch of self-proclaimed experts in an irrelevant discipline complaining about an unacknowledged crisis, to which they have no answers anyway. Women weren’t emancipated and given the right to vote by a group of trained constitutional lawyers, experts on social change and experienced activists. It happened because the women who were affected by the injustice decided to stand up and do something about it. If we ever see real change, it will be because of us, not the trained experts.
So once again, it’s time to stop being nice. Quit worrying about what people “in power” might think and just do what is right. There has NEVER been any social change for good that didn’t require regular, ordinary people to stand up and say no, no more. For me, that includes both the medical mainstream and the established birth activism community. No. No more. You can’t marginalize us anymore and you can’t accomplish anything without us. So quit blaming us for the problem on the one hand (“women just don’t bother to educate themselves/care/think for themselves) and then refusing us a place in the fight on the other (“no one wants to listen to a bunch of angry women”). You can’t have it both ways. Right now, you haven’t got anything worth a protectionist attitude anyway.