The Transnational Feminist Fight to Reform Healthcare

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 gaining a foothold in the United States—and white, male doctors began replacing community healthcare providers and midwives across the country, completely altering the nation’s approaches to healthcare.

In the years since, the degradation of our planet has been simultaneous with the devaluation of women’s bodies and lives around the world.

The Industrial Revolution marked a turning point in our planet’s future—and in our culture’s gender politics. (Wally Gobetz / Creative Commons)

In 1844, Samuel Morse invented the telegram, allowing for rapid communication and unprecedented industrial expansion in the United States. The American Medical Association (AMA) was founded just three years later. The organization lobbied extensively against midwives and other community healthcare workers. They insisted—through new legislation, powerful connections with the government and what were effectively slander campaigns—that the population’s healthcare move under their domain.

These newly emboldened doctors assumed that nature was flawed, and that they could improve human birth by intervening in the process with drugs and technology. This assumption 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. Doctors also began the practice of separating babies and mothers at the time of birth due to a completely imagined risk of infection, and managed to essentially eliminated breastfeeding for a time.

This erroneous assumption that the female body needed technologies and interventions to birth and feed our babies coincided with the societal trend towards industrialization. In the same decades that more medicalized childbirth grew in popularity, Orville Wright made the first powered airplane flight and Henry Ford created the Model T. As humans invented more and more technologies and the world became reliant on fossil fuels, we began to deeply medicalize birth in our society.

Nestlé, the largest producer and distributor of formula in the world, got cozy with the AMA in 1932 when the organization passed a law stating that the formula industry could only advertise to the medical profession. In the 1930’s, about 77 percent of infants were breastfed; by 1972, the number dropped drastically to 22 percent.

Formula consumption in infancy correlates with health issues such as type 2 diabetes and sudden infant death syndrome, and there is an increased risk of breast cancer for women who don’t breastfeed. Even though 800,000 infants die every year due to lack of breastmilk, the global baby formula market is expected to be worth about $62.5 billion dollars by 2020.

The United States is one of the largest polluters in the world. Although we make up only 5 percent of the world’s population, we produce a whopping 30 percent of its waste—a total of 236 million tons of it each year—and much of that waste is generated by the healthcare industry. The U.S. also sees wider disparities of wealth than any other developed nation; the wealthiest 1 percent of American households possess 40 percent of the country’s wealth. Racial disparities persist even there, too: For every $100 a white family owns, black families hold just $5.04.

Climate change doesn’t affect everybody equally. While so-called developed nations produce most of the world’s pollution worldwide, their less-developed neighbors are the hardest hit by its consequences; in the U.S., people of color are much more likely than white folks to live near polluters, breathe polluted air and drink poison water.

This phenomena, called environmental racism, isn’t new—nor is it an accident. In the late 1970s, when the general public and many medical professionals realized that breast is best (surprise!), large U.S.-based companies like Nestlé began a powerful campaign in the Global South for women to feed their babies with formula

Today, the same places that are the hardest hit by climate change are the countries that have the highest rates of formula use—and the inequities of our own domestic for-profit healthcare system mirror these dire straits. Black women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, and in cities like New York, they can be as much as 12 times more likely to face maternal mortality.

We are currently in the most dire period of climate change in human history. The global temperature has risen 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880. NASA states that the carbon dioxide levels are up 409 parts per million, meaning that CO2 levels are at their highest in the last 650,000 years on this planet. The UN estimates that 200 species go extinct every day, and 13.2 percent of arctic ice melts every decade.

Scientists estimate that by 2035, we will hit an unprecedented change in the earth’s atmosphere. We have already seen huge climate transitions in our lifetimes, and many of the world’s powers have yet to make committed decisions to get behind renewal energy sources and leave fossil fuels behind.

We need to stop focusing on profit margins and start prioritizing the health of our populations and our planet. We need to reinvent the healthcare system so that we can heal ourselves and mitigate the damages we have caused our planet. We need to cut unnecessary wastefulness in our healthcare system. We need to invest more in preventative forms of healthcare. The planet depends on it. Female bodies—and humanity in general, birthed from these bodies—depends on it.

Let’s ameliorate climate change disasters as much as possible. Let’s re-learn how to respect our earth—the original Mother. And with this, may we remember to value the female body again.


Marea Goodman is a home-birth midwife practicing in Oakland, California.