Forward Together's Stealth Attack on Motherhood
As an adoptive mother, I often felt sheepish standing up in church with the many biological mothers to receive my carnation and curvy-lettered prayer card on the second Sunday in May. I was plagued with self-doubts because I believed that I lacked the key experience common to all biological mothers: childbirth. In part because adoptive parenting put me more in contact with the losses of birth parents, I was initially sympathetic when I came across discussions of "Mamas Day," an alternative holiday to Mother's Day. I thought that any holiday that stood up for marginalized mothers and the mother-child bond, especially in these days of working women postponing childbearing, would be a help to mothers. Yet I couldn't have been more wrong.
By offering design-it-yourself greeting cards for men pretending to be women, the Mamas Day website1 reveals what it's really talking about, the so-called birth justice movement. "Birth justice" is that part of the reproductive rights movement that focuses on pregnancy and birth. It presents giving birth to a child as the ultimate expression of individual identity. According to its proponents, giving birth is an experience that each human body has a right to participate in. Yet, somewhat contradictorily, this includes the right to decide "whether or not to carry a pregnancy," as well as the right "to choose when, where, how, and with whom to birth."2 According to birth justice activists, racism and inequality are responsible for health disparities among various groups, and must be addressed by providing midwives and doulas to minorities at government expense.
Forward Together, the organizational sponsor of Mamas Day, recognizes a child's ties to his biological mother, but only as a means to political empowerment. The bond between parent and child is important not for its own sake, but because it can be used to generate sympathy for certain political causes. Mamas Day proponents link motherhood to social justice causes by tacking the word "mama" onto several controversial issues, including radical feminism (called movement mamas), substance abuse and its decriminalization (called incarcerated mamas), and the LGBT agenda (transgender mamas).
Amid omnipresent images of mothers and babies with raised fists, Forward Together's web page states, "We know that mamahood is not one size fits all. But most popular images of mothers exclude mamas based on their sexual orientation, race, income, immigration status and more."3 But how do they know that one size doesn't fit all? Natural motherhood, as a station in life and as the foundation on which love and care for a child rests, does fit all women, even though some wish to claim their experiences as an expression of their ethnic or sexual identity.
Redefining the Family
Founded in 1989, Forward Together is, as the name implies, a partnership-building organization that is able to fund radical groups (Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter, for example, sits on its board) by making reproductive politics look family-friendly. Through slickly designed polls and state campaigns, its activists pull local voters into their network by promising to deliver changes in healthcare policy. Often these promises exploit fears and insecurities that are just a part of motherhood. Fear of inadequacy, for example, is met with the idea that the nuclear family imposes unrealistic expectations on parents. Better, then, to change what the family is.
Forward Together is known for its Strong Families Initiative, a ten-year strategy whose goal is to "redefine Family Values on their terms—valuing families as they are, not as the Right thinks they should be."4 But redefining family values does not really capture the initiative's aims. It is more accurate to say that its goal is to exclude the reality of biological sex from the concepts of family and birth. Strong Families works toward this goal by normalizing LGBT partnerships with children and reclassifying them as "families."
Redefining Motherhood as an Expression of Identity
Partner organizations, such as Black Mamas Matter Alliance and the Southern Birth Justice Network (SBJN), redefine the family by redefining motherhood as a queer, transgender, black, or indigenous experience. They contend that birth is not simply a natural occurrence, but one that individuals construct to fit their experience in a meaningful way. Women giving birth—especially if they are members of a minority group—are victims of a medical establishment that refuses to give them control over birth.
These are old allegations with a new twist. These organizations cite a high maternal mortality rate among minority women—referencing, for example, CDC data showing that black women are two to three times more likely to "die from a pregnancy-related cause" than white women5—as evidence of the need for "gender inclusive" social programs. They also use real health risks to project an existential urgency onto the woman giving birth, thus shifting attention away from the natural focus on mother and baby. Birth equity organizations that pledge to correct maternal mortality through social programs for "nonbinary" persons are not addressing mortality rates so much as they are marketing an existential crisis of identity.
Identity mothering—the idea that the only acceptable mama is the one who makes her sexual or racial identity the center of her maternal experience—underlies the birth justice movement. Its activists say they are correcting injustice, when in fact they are redefining motherhood.
The problems with this are legion, but perhaps the most important is the failure to recognize that "birthing" is not an experience that persons have, but is the event that brings forth an independent human life—an event that only biological women can participate in. Women who make childbirth into an expression of identity politics are missing the point: individual experience does not define what motherhood is.
Living out the principle of self-sacrifice that is built into women's maternal instinct is not entirely without risk. To think of motherhood primarily as a culturally conditioned experience in which nothing is ventured is both to rob it of its importance and to assign more weight to the cultural aspects of how a birth takes place—at home or in a hospital—than is warranted. With their insistence on the preeminence of atomized identity, groups like the SBJN assail what should be one of the most unifying forces for good in human society: motherhood.
Making Birth Political
While the SBJN advertises itself as providing midwife care that is "holistic, healing and humanistic," this goal is hard to reconcile with the invitation to "help us decolonize birth," stated on the same webpage.6 That statement belongs to the model of reproduction as a collective work that is shared equally among "birth partners" who make up a loosely connected "community." SBJN's founder and director, Jamarah Amani, believes that motherhood and giving birth build local political power by being treated as an ideological training ground. Her mentor, the radical judge and midwife Claudia Booker, did as well when she wrote, "Once again it is birth political [sic]—a community who cannot birth itself cannot survive—if we have to go outside of our own resources to ensure the birth and growth of our children, our future is out of our hands."7
This encapsulates the Marxist ideology of the birth justice movement. In assuming that perpetuating a particular racial and even revolutionary identity is paramount, mothers as such need not enter into the equation at all.
The primary route to obtaining community resources is to demand rights. In fact, the first document on SBJN's website is a "birth justice bill of rights." According to that document, "mamas" have the right to know their history and to use it to enforce codes of conduct on others. Right number 7, for example, to "care for all my identities," means providers should only use a patient's preferred gender pronouns. Right number 10, to "respect my family structure," asserts that the nuclear family is a social construct, such that even the line on a typical intake form for filling in the name of a baby's father is too exclusive; instead, people should be asked "what their family structures look like."8 Amani suggests that women bring the SBJN bill of rights to their provider and have those rights incorporated into their birthing plans. This will result in abnormal gender categories and nonexistent intersectional categories being written into the forms and legal documents surrounding birth.
Finally, the birth justice movement has redefined the facts and logic of birth. The natural process of birth is such that female physiology is required for it to happen. In other words, only women can actually give birth. The illogic of the social justice birthing model is evident in its claim that women living as men can also "birth"—i.e., that giving birth can also be a masculine activity.
Fighting for Natural Motherhood
Defining being a "mama" by virtue of membership in a racial or sexual minority group will have severe consequences on society. Under this model, the authority for placing just value on the human condition devolves to the state and the language it chooses to use. Natural motherhood, by contrast, occurs in the context of the traditional family, wherein a woman exercises charity by caring for her own children and wherein she may extend that charity to the wider society through such works as adoption, orphan care, or evangelizing children. Natural motherhood is designed by God to magnify tasks and persons that society views as "casual and small," and through them, to reveal himself. It is thus a far more powerful example of caring for the marginalized than any social justice program could hope for.
I eventually did recover from thinking that not having experienced childbirth myself was to blame for my normal parenting struggles. A friend once told me, "You know, to her you really are mom." This is the big secret that many in the birth justice movement want to keep hidden: that being a mother by nature or by grace really is enough. Women should be wary of any movement that exploits the difficulties, risks, and humanity of being a mother. They should therefore be very wary of Forward Together and the birth justice movement.
5. cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/maternal-mortality/disparities-pregnancy-related-deaths/infographic.html. Cited, e.g., here: https://blackmamasmatter.org/bmhc-2021.
6. See the Mission Statement and Doula Mentorship descriptions at https://southernbirthjustice.org.
8. See "Birth Advocacy, Part 1 of 3," at youtube.com/watch?v=QKSjOFT3ThE, time index 21:44 and following.
is a once and future homeschooling mother who currently lives in Germany. She has enjoyed teaching both in the home and in various community colleges in the midwestern United States, while engaged in foster-to-adopt ministries with her husband. Currently she writes about issues relevant to reproduction and motherhood from home.This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #58, Fall 2021 Copyright © 2021 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo58/miscarriage-of-birth-justice