Note: when I wrote the first draft of this post months ago, I had no idea how relevant it would become, given the recent publication of the controversial article proposing “after-birth abortions.”
I took Leboyer’s Birth without Violence out of the library on a whim while browsing the birth and pregnancy section. I was seven months pregnant with Lydia and in search of a book on vaccinations when I noticed Leboyer’s classic tome on the shelf. I impulsively grabbed it with the expectation that it was just another birthing book I’d go through.
Turns out, it is a book about birth. But it’s also about so much more.
I hadn’t thought of this when I first pulled it off the shelf, but it’s a valuable book to someone who is committed to radical non-violence. It has “violence” right in the title, after all. It addresses the topic of birth, but it is passionately interested in the origins of human suffering, aggression, strength, and empathy.
To give you some background: Leboyer is a French obstetrician who published his famous book in 1975. Some of you may have heard of the “Leboyer Method” of giving birth, which emphasizes creating a soothing, comfortable atmosphere for the child entering the world. It calls for dim lighting, hushed voices, gentle handling, and the infamous “Leboyer bath” — the practice of immersing newly-born infants in warm water to help ease the transition from the womb to the outside world.
I was struck first by Leboyer’s writing style. Birth Without Violence is written like a long poem. It’s less of a manual on childbirth than a philosophical treatise on extending empathy to the unborn, the being-born, and the newly-born.
For Leboyer, treating newborn infants with compassion and dignity has deep implications for improving the quality of human life in the long run — physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Leboyer does have a few ideas that I find kind of hokey. He suggests that all violence stems from suppressed birth trauma, and from our inability to forgive our mothers for violently thrusting us into the world. This seems a little far-fetched. In my opinion, he believes too strongly in the power the birth experience to shape the entire course of a person’s life.
But overall, I appreciated Leboyer’s passionate tenderness, the way he made me rethink what a newborn may be experiencing and expressing, and the way he made me redefine violence.
Giving Birth to Heroes
Leboyer believes his method of gentle childbirth will help create strong adults. The book is a “plan to give birth to heroes . . . free of fear” (p. 114-115).
Leboyer notes that this goes against a widespread notion that children need to be exposed to hardships to teach them how to deal with life. Since life is hard, the thinking goes, babies need to learn right from birth that they need to be aggressive. Some readers, then, may object to the idea of shielding children from the difficulties of birth because it will encourage them to be weak right from the start.
In opposition to this philosophy, Leboyer argues that “Aggression is not strength . . . [Rather], aggression and violence are the masks of weakness.” (p. 116).
This is a key truth for those of us committed to non-violence. We believe that aggression is a sign of weakness. It takes true courage and imagination to deal with conflict non-violently.
The Key to Non-Violence: Taking the Perspective of the Other
Another thing that struck me about Leboyer’s book was how much time he spent trying to see from the baby’s perspective.
First, he tries to poetically imagine each moment of the birth experience from the child’s perspective, evening envisioning life in the womb and the feeling of the first contractions against the child’s body. He images the child’s emotions through all of these phases.
Leboyer reprints pictures of just-born infants, coated in slime, screaming in what he interprets to be anguish. He carefully examines he facial expressions, the wails, and the body language of the newly-born child, scrutinizing “this mask of indescribable agony, these hands clutching, clinging onto his head, like someone struck by lightning . . .” (p. 14). He pays close attention to “the tragic forehead, the screaming mouth, these closed eyes, clenched eyebrows, these desperate, pleading, outstretched hands, these feet furiously kicking . . . ” (p. 9).
When you look at it that way, the baby does seem to be experiencing agony, and it becomes our moral imperative to ease the child’s suffering.
I learned from Leboyer that the key to non-violence is actively trying to take on the perspective of the person who seems not to have a valid perspective. The one who seems not quite human. The one who seems nothing like you . . . and to thoughtfully imagine that he is like you, and capable of feeling the same range of emotions as you. Bitterness, anxiety, betrayal, fear: Leboyer imagines that the child is capable of all these feelings, and as a result, he is committed to offering the child relief from all of them.
Leboyer offers a powerful example of extending compassion to those who can’t speak. Reading his book, I realized that we’ll never know how some people feel if we wait for them to tell us, because they don’t have the tools to communicate the way we do. We can’t assume that just because they don’t use speech, they don’t experience the things we do. So Leboyer works hard to interpret their non-verbal language – their cries, their facial expressions.
This book reminded me that being committed to radical non-violence means so much more than refusing to go to war. It means seeing and respecting the personhood of those we often overlook – including the unborn, the being-born, and (by extension) the dying.
I believe that a thinking, non-violent person must also consider how this commitment might extend to other nonverbal people – infants and young children, persons with disabilities that prevent speech, and even animals.
Leboyer encourages a deep respect for the child as a person. The newborn child deserves to be treated with as much dignity and respect as an adult. We need to take his language seriously, paying attention to his facial expression, body language, and cries as valid forms of communication. The child experiences sensations in those first few moments every bit as much as we do, and is therefore deserving of just as much courtesy and attention to his comfort as we would offer a guest in our homes.
For Leboyer, the measure of how much care should be given to a creature is how much that creature can experience sensations. It is not based on merit, intelligence, strength, or any other measure of worth. An infant has none of these. But because she can feel, she deserves to be cared for with utmost concern.
I learned a lot about non-violence from Leboyer. He has encouraged me to seek out non-violent solutions to life’s problems and to see through the eyes of non-verbal creatures.