Monstrous rumors, evidence, and educating feminist allies

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By Emjaybee

Ok, here’s the deal: Jezebel picks up a story about a highly disturbing and inflammatory article that maintains that two pioneers of British obstetrics, William Hunter and William Smellie, may have committed murder in order to get enough pregnant corpses to practice on in the 18th century.

Lindsey Beyerstein at Majikthise finds the whole thing doubtful and tell us why. (watch for the infamous Dr. A to weigh in in her comments).

Feminist blogger Amanda at Pandagon picks up the story and worries about anti-science approaches to obstetrics (she is not a big fan of the anti-vaccination movement either).

(and of course I shoot off my big mouth a bit in Amanda’s comments, too).

Amanda is one of the newest and youngest feminist bloggers out there, and has a wide audience, well-deserved; she’s a sharp, fierce, and funny writer. But if you read her piece, you might feel as I do that there’s a lot of feminists who still don’t understand the connections between autonomy in a woman’s day-to-day life and autonomy in birth. Maybe because they’re young and haven’t had to deal with the birth-industrial complex yet (though Miriam at Feministing consistently posts excellent bits on midwifery and obstetrics).

And underneath all that is maybe also a fear of not being taken seriously if they ally themselves too closely to the midwifery types. This is understandable; when you pick up an issue of Midwifery Today, you can’t notice that, well, it looks like it was designed in 1975; among all the many excellent articles are also spiritual essays and advertisements for various herbal, homeopathic, and other remedies that owe much more to folklore and culture than to science. And discussions of natural birth online frequently include some mention of women and/or midwives who employ these practices.

This is touchy territory. I myself do not believe in homeopathy or many other birth-related practices that fall into this camp. However, I also know that the hippie, crunchy, spiritual types largely kept midwifery alive in the 20th century long enough for other women to find it again when they began to protest their mistreatment under the “scientific” regimes of obstetrics. We cannot deny the tremendous service they performed by doing so, even if we move on to advocacy for midwifery and other practices based on evidence, not religion or folklore.

Those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s are in that middle ground, between the joyful reclamation of the self symbolized by Ina May Gaskin and her followers, and the fierce insistence on scientific truth demanded by younger feminists like Amanda. Maybe it’s part of our job to be the middle link, to transmit the memories and knowledge of the generation before us to the energetic and talented young women coming up after us.