Famous and infamous births

Posted on December 21, 2009.

By Paula Modersohn Becker

By Paula Modersohn Becker

When is a photo of a woman giving birth considered pornographic? Take your pick:

A. When it is shown in a pornographic magazine, film or website.
B. Never.
C. When it is emailed to government officials urging action to improve public health.

One could argue about A and B but this blog is about C.

Earlier this year, in Zambia, Chansa Kabwela, news editor at the feisty opposition newspaper The Post, was charged with circulating pornography with intent to corrupt public morals. What was her crime? During a nationwide strike by Zambia’s miserably paid doctors, a woman allegedly gave birth without medical assistance in a hospital car park. The baby was in a breech position and later died.

Her family sent Kabwela the photos but she found them too graphic for publication. Instead, she emailed them to the vice-president and other government officials and women’s groups, urging a negotiated end to the strike to avoid more deaths.

President Rupiyah Banda found the photos “morbid and peculiar” and Kabwela, a 29-year-old mother of two, was charged with the porn offence, which carries a five-year jail sentence. The state argued that giving birth is sacred in Zambia and the photos were disrespectful.

If giving birth is so sacred, why was the woman delivering in a car park?

Good sense prevailed and in November a judge acquitted Kabwela.

The Post has long been harassed by government for exposing corruption. This court case is one more instance, using birth, women and tradition as a cover to erode press freedom.

A very famous Christmas birth

This being the season of a famous birth, on the other side of the world, in New Zealand, a mischievous billboard about the immaculate conception has angered Catholics.                christmas-advertising-cam-001

It shows Joseph and Mary in bed. She looks blissful; he looks dejected. The kicker: “Poor Joseph. God is a hard act to follow.”

The twist is that the originator is an Anglican archdeacon who commissioned an ad agency to produce a Christmas poster. The archdeacon argues, somewhat confusedly, that the purpose was to highlight that Christmas is about love, not about Mary’s impregnation by God.

Within hours the billboard  was defaced with brown paint. Well, at least this is better than rioting over caricatures of the Prophet or charging an editor with pornography.

Giving birth is charged with cultural meaning: it can be sacred, pornographic, joyful, “eculiar” or offensive.  For half a million women, every year, it is deadly.

Yet these deaths do not spark the same outrage as a billboard or photographs.

My wish this Christmas is quite simple: safe delivery for women everywhere, not in a car park and not in a manger, neither holy nor unholy, whether through sex, artificial insemination or immaculate conception. Just safe.


Read about why maternal mortality remains so intractable here and about midwives in India.