by Marea Goodman
We are in a crucial moment in our planet’s history. Scientists estimate that by 2035, we will reach an unprecedented change in the earth’s atmosphere. All of us, but particularly communities of color and the Global South, are vulnerable to natural disasters caused by environmental degradation. But don’t panic! There is hope.
Never before have we had so many different groups fighting to end climate injustice and environmental racism. Young people like Greta Thunberg and indigenous-led organizations are leading the way as we collectively work to heal our planet. And midwives, doulas, and reproductive justice workers are integral parts of this fight.
The medicalization of childbirth coincided with the societal trend towards industrialization.
The degradation of our environment is deeply connected to the feelings of disconnection endemic to humanity. For centuries, humans have been growing farther away from nature, our bodies, and our own children and families. Intergenerational apathy is dangerous to our planet and our collective future. Birth is one key place that our system needs to change— our families and ecosystems depend on it.
Since the Industrial Revolution, greenhouse gases have risen 260 percent. Interestingly, this was about the same time that doctors and the western medical system began to gain a foothold in the United States. White, male doctors started to replace community healthcare providers and midwives across the country, completely altering the nation’s approach to reproductive healthcare.
The American Medical Association was founded in 1844. This organization lobbied extensively against midwives (mostly black, rural, and not formally educated). They insisted—through new legislation, powerful connections with the government and what were effectively slander campaigns—that they gain control of birth in this country.
Their system assumed that the nature of the female body was flawed, and thought that they could improve birth by intervening in the process with drugs and technology. This theory led to the invention of twilight sleep, the practice of sedating a woman to unconsciousness during childbirth, in the early 1900s—which then necessitated the routine use of forceps, because birthing people could not push. Thousands of birth injuries resulted from the common misuse of forceps during deliveries. During this time, all babies were routinely separated from their parents after birth because of an imagined risk of infection, and breastfeeding rates dropped drastically.
Babies, instead of feeling the warmth and softness of their parents’ skin immediately after birth, were confined to the coldness of glass or plastic bassinets. This became what we expected from life—setting us up to tolerate more disconnection from nature and other humans as we grew and then had babies of our own.
The medicalization of childbirth coincided with the societal trend towards industrialization. In the same decades that the American Medical Association became more powerful, Orville Wright made the first powered airplane flight and Henry Ford created the Model T. While developed nations produced more and more pollution, the medicalization of birth and increased separation between babies and birthing people became deeper entrenched in our society.
We need to re-learn how to value birth and prioritize connection in newborn’s first experiences of their world.
So many generations have been born like this that we now assume that it is normal. Capitalism depends on humans feeling disconnected from ourselves and nature so that we will continue working and consuming, without consciousness of the sustainability our planet requires.
Climate change, like the healthcare system, doesn’t treat everybody equally. Black women and birthing people are three to four times more likely than white women to experience maternal mortality. And, while developed nations produce most of the world’s pollution worldwide, their less-developed neighbors in the Global South are the hardest hit by the consequences of climate change. In the U.S., people of color are much more likely than white folks to live near polluters, breathe polluted air, and drink poisoned water. Environmental racism is inextricably connected to the disparities in outcomes in our healthcare system.
We need more midwives, doulas, and reproductive justice workers advocating for our humanity as birthing people and protecting our right to connection as newborns. We need to eliminate the racism in our maternal healthcare system and support black joy and resilience beginning at the first breath. Each baby born in a loving and connected way strengthens the climate justice movement.
Climate change demands that all of us participate. It requires us to follow the lead of young people and indigenous communities in our efforts to reclaim our relationships with nature and humanity. Reproductive justice movements need midwives at the center of our healthcare system and doulas supporting all birthers to have positive, safe, and relaxed experiences of childbirth. We need to re-learn how to value birth and prioritize connection in newborn’s first experiences of their world. And with this, may we re-learn how to respect our earth—the original Mother— again.
Marea Goodman is a homebirth midwife practicing in the San Francisco Bay Area.