It’s the special treatment reserved for Jews that earns the anti-circumcision “intact-ivism” movement the label “anti-Jew.” And it’s the large space created for intactivist representation within the natural childbirth movement which unfortunately poisons this otherwise effective and necessary maternal health community.
As a childbirth doula (labor coach) in the San Francisco Bay Area, I am honored to support women of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds and to work on the cutting edge of patient rights and women’s health along with a growing movement of informed practitioners who are advocating for birth options and evidence-based practices. I am privileged to serve clients of all backgrounds along with the other Jewish women health practitioners in the “Imeinu Doulas and Birth Collective” which I founded in 2008. Just as “Shalom Bayit” a 22-year old Jewish domestic violence organization in the Bay Area is a model of a culturally-based women’s rights initiative who works locally but is internationally known and networked, Imeinu is a younger, established and growing culturally-based women’s health and advocacy model but in the field of childbirth with service providers networked internationally.
As a Jewish woman who literally wears my Jewish heritage as I ally with other natural birth professionals, I become a quick target for anti-circumcision rationale, a quick opportunity for intactivists practicing talking points that are developed especially for Jews. Let’s back up here and understand the difference between the way birth workers usually provide information and how intactivists, whose work is primarily carried out through layers of public relations campaigns, promote their cause.
Birth Workers are different from Intactivists
When we birth professionals are educating new parents about procedures like epidurals, delayed umbilical chord clamping, skin-to-skin, or breastfeeding – all of which can have life-changing impact on the vitality of the child, we do not aggressively assert that parents are hurting their child or putting themselves at risk if they go along with what are the medical trends. We encourage parents to do their own research and inform themselves about the approaches of their care providers so that they can be aware of risks and options and exercise their rights as patients and human beings.
Birth workers partly get our work done by staying up-to-date and providing information, and the impact of natural birth advocacy is seen in the statistics. Examples of the successes of birth workers can be seen in the emerging government-funded doula programs in several countries, bringing more trained labor coaches to provide continuous care to mothers in labor because of the improved health outcomes associated with the presence of a doula. Birth workers’ objections to inducing pre-term labor or pre-term elective cesareans helped focus research on these issues which eventually led to policy changes in hospitals across the United States, so we know our approach works. More hospitals are instituting new protocols for delayed umbilical chord clamping, and skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby immediately following delivery – two campaigns that the natural birth movement has been conducting through its attention to evidence-based research in the field and in published studies.
Intactivism is carried out through public relations campaigns that range from reaching expectant parents through tabling at childbirth fairs to pushing for legislation to outlaw circumcision. Books, websites, blogs and social media sites share science, stories, and resources on why circumcision is wrong. These venues commonly devote a portion of their pages to cultural circumcision which inevitably focuses on mostly misunderstood and inaccurately framed summaries on Jewish culture. And for those of us who have inherited circumcision in our religious practice, there are even some Jewish-run groups who offer guidance to holding alternative ceremonies sans the cut, and support groups. But it doesn’t stop there.
Special Treatment for Jews
Enter a conversation with intactivists and let them know you are a Jew, almost every time the conversation topic will change from the focus of circumcision being medically unnecessary to, “Did you know another baby died in New York from herpes after the mohel sucked…” No matter whether you appear religiously observant, no consideration or interest in whether you circumcised your own son at 8 days, just because they learn you are Jewish intactivists will bombard you with talking points that range from new information about your ancestral tradition, to Jewish celebrities’ involvement with intactivism, to films about Jewish men and their decisions about circumcision for their sons, to names of organizations that can help you. If you’re lucky, the intactivist will remember to compliment your people, “Well Jews wait till 8 days so the Jewish boys getting circumcised are the lucky ones if you’re going to have it done…”
Intactivists are blind to the fact that the same arguments they are promoting outside the Jewish community, based on research to advocate their cause, would be the only ones appropriate to share with Jews. Intactivists treat Jews different from other people and within their culture have developed an entirely separate agenda for Jewish ears. Even though less than 2% of the American population is Jewish while majority of Americans circumcise, much of the intactivist propaganda – from memes to comic books to films – involves imagery of and alludes to Jewish men. So intactivism is involved with targeting Jews in personal interactions, and representing Jews as child-abusers in the public sphere.
Intactivists have failed in the cultural sensitivity arena. In the Bay Area and other parts of the world, the Jewish and Muslim communities have come together to defend their religious practice from proposed anti-circumcision legislation, so I believe we can all thank the intactivists for catalyzing some unity.
Birth Workers Need to Realign with Dignified Advocacy Practice
Speaking as a birth worker, cultural sensitivity is part of our job. We serve families who speak all languages, in all circumstances, with all sorts of beliefs during this sacred time as they welcome new life into the world. Many of us natural birth doulas serve parents in homes, birth centers, and hospital settings. Regardless of our personal choices and opinions, our purpose is to support our clients whatever their decisions may be while upholding the utmost respect and cooperative relationships with the medical professionals who are responsible for the childbirth procedures and outcomes.
The natural birth movement’s imperative is to handle circumcision with the same professionalism as they do all other debated procedures related to maternity, childbirth, and babies. We cannot allow the intactivist movement’s impassioned bigotry which condemns and even criminalizes our clients who choose circumcision while also targeting Jews, to run us off course from our successful movement to improve maternity care.
In fact, natural birth professionals are already anti-racism activists. We have to take into account that horrendous disparities are at play when we support our mothers in labor. For example, a black woman is five times more likely to die during childbirth than other women in the United States, regardless of her economic or other status. Similarly, racism is evident in our professional field as the vast majority of birth and maternity care workers as well as the natural birth events are light-skinned women. Reproductive justice advocates are addressing the ways that institutional and societal racism impact childbirth and women’s health as well as the professional field. We shouldn’t have to be adding anti-semitism to the mix, with Jewish birth pros and Jewish moms feeling alienated from our good work.
If we as childbirth professionals, and the natural maternity organizations we are part of, choose to address circumcision within our scope of information, we can give the issue the same consideration and air-time as we do to the many other physically and spiritually invasive procedures that we witness regularly. Resources about circumcision options are about as appropriate for birth workers’ clients as resources about vaccination as long as the information is evidence-based, but the intactivist movement’s degrading tactics and banners should have no place in our online or virtual forums, nor at our events.
Wendy Kenin is a childbirth doula and mother of five in Berkeley, California. Creator of eco-feminist judaica and founder of Imeinu Doulas and Childbirth Collective, Wendy is a member of the editorial board of Jewcology – the online home of the Jewish environmental movement, and serves on the leadership circle of the Torah-guided environmental organization Canfei Nesharim. She is also a social media consultant, co-chair of the Green Party’s national newspaper Green Pages, and a member of the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission. Wendy blogs and tweets as @greendoula.
Read the original article as it first appeared September 18, 2014 in The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, CA.