Hope Is Giving Birth in the Face of the Dragon by Beth Bartlett

Syrian Baby

The image of the baby born under the rubble of the earthquake in Syria has been haunting me. So has the image in my mind of her mother, giving birth to her baby while trapped after the building, where she, her husband, and their children were sleeping, collapsed.  The baby’s uncle, when digging through the debris hoping to reach his brother and family, found the baby alive, her umbilical cord still attached to her mother. When he cut the cord, the baby let out a cry.  Tragically, her mother had died after giving birth, as had her father and siblings.

I keep thinking of her mother – of what it must have been like for her to go into labor while pinned under the rubble of the collapsed building, without so much as a hand to hold let alone a midwife, medical facilities, pain relief, hot water, nor simply the ability to move.  Had she been able to see or touch her baby before she died?  What were her fears?  What were her hopes? 

In a session in my hospice training, when we each gave our definition of hope, one said, “Hope is giving birth in the face of the dragon.”  The reference is to the Biblical book of Revelations where it is written that a  “ . . . dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.”[i] Despite the threatening circumstances, the woman, presumably Mary, gives birth.  Audre Lorde also wrote of the perilous nature of giving birth and “raising Black children – female and male – in the mouth of a racist, sexist, suicidal dragon.”[ii] 

The dragons abound.  Undoubtedly, the Syrian woman who gave birth in the midst of an earthquake birthed her other children in the face of the dragon of war, as have women in underground shelters in Ukraine.  Women in Afghanistan and Iran give birth to girls in the face of the dragon of severe gender oppression; those in Somalia in the face of famine and death; others while fleeing violence and poverty. African American women in the U.S. give birth in face of the dragon of their children being incarcerated or dying of gun violence; [iii]  indigenous women give birth in the face of their girl children being at high risk of disappearing and being murdered, and their boy children being at high risk of death by suicide; [iv] women in prison, often shackled, birth babies taken from them soon after being born;[v] and women worldwide give birth to children facing an uncertain future of climate crisis.

Every birthing mother faces her own dragon as well, for what Margaret Sanger wrote decades ago — that each time a woman gives birth, she goes through “the vale of death”[vi] — still rings true. Thousands of women die in childbirth every year. Maternal mortality rates in the U.S. are among the highest of all the developed countries.[vii]   For African American women these rates are nearly three times those for white women.[viii]  And the numbers in the United States pale by comparison with those of women in many African nations.[ix]  Additionally, a recent study estimates that the current bans on abortion in the U.S., if extended nationwide, would lead to a 21% increase in the number of pregnancy-related deaths overall and a 33% increase among Black women.

More women are choosing not to give birth in the face of these dragons.  Since the Dobbs decision,[x] permitting states to prohibit abortion, even to save the life and health of the mother, more women of child-bearing age are seeking permanent sterilization.  Others fear the lack of support for families in the U.S.  Unlike nearly every other country in the world, the United States offers no paid parental leave.  Nor does the U.S. provide much support for childcare, granting families a measly $500/child annually in contrast with other countries that provide thousands of dollars.[xi] Nor does the U.S. have any provisions for paid sick leave, in comparison with over 145 other countries that do.[xii] Add to these the appalling lack of government-supported health care in the U.S., and choosing to have children in America can become quite precarious, especially for those already on the margins.  In addition, more couples are choosing not to give birth in the face of the dragon of climate change, as anxieties rise of what the future of the earth might portend for any child they would bring into the world.

It is only in the past fifty years or so of effective contraception and evolving reproductive justice that the bearing of children has become more of a choice for women.  Whether chosen or not, whether facing dragons of war or poverty, the collapse of buildings or of the earth itself, the fact remains that the vast majority of women around the world give birth.[xiii]  About 250 women have given birth just in the time it will have taken you to read this.  In that moment of bringing new life into the world, each gives the strength of their love, their body, their resilience to affirming life, goodness, possibility, and hope. As I write this, I also think of feminist composer Margie Adam saying of women, “When we risk new possibilities, we give birth to ourselves.”[xiv]

As evidenced in the thousands of goddess figurines found throughout the world, cultures have long honored the strength, resilience, and life-giving powers of pregnant and birthing women.  Yet, in these patriarchal times where, as Simone de Beauvoir pointed out, “superiority has been accorded in humanity not to the sex that brings forth but to that which kills,”[xv] our statuary tends more to memorialize men for their valor in war.  It is past time to venerate the valor of birthing women. Whether giving birth to children or to themselves in the face of the patriarchal dragon, in a rewording of the Wisdom of Sirach (44:1), let us now praise women, who gave birth to us all.[xvi]



23 States Still Allow Shackling Pregnant Prisoners – The Crime Report 

Adam, Margie. 1980. Naked Keys: Solo Piano Performances. Berkeley: Pleiades Records.

Baby Born in Rubble of Turkey-Syria Earthquake is One of Many Child Victims – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Beauvoir, Simone de. 1952. The Second Sex. Trans. and ed. by H.M. Parshley. New York, Alfred A. Knopf.

BirthStrikers: meet the women who refuse to have children until climate change ends | Women | The Guardian

Blades, Joan & Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner. 2006. The Motherhood Manifesto: What America’s Moms Want and What to Do About It. New York: Nation Books.

Childbirth Is Deadlier for Black Families Even When They’re Rich, Expansive Study Finds – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Female Sterilization Searches Shoot Up in the U.S. (newsweek.com)

For Most Women Who Give Birth in Prison, ‘The Separation’ Soon Follows | FRONTLINE (pbs.org)

How Other Nations Pay for Child Care. The U.S. Is an Outlier. – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

Imprisonment rate of black Americans fell by a third from 2006 to 2018 | Pew Research Center

Lorde, Audre. 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. Trumansburg, New York: The Crossing Press.

Maternal Mortality Maternity Care US Compared 10 Other Countries | Commonwealth Fund

Maternal Mortality Rates in the United States, 2020 (cdc.gov)

Maternal mortality ratio – The World Factbook (cia.gov)

Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Crisis | Indian Affairs (bia.gov)

Neumann, Erich. 1963.The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype.  Trans. Ralph Manheim. Princeton: Princeton U. Press.

Paid Family & Medical Leave | MomsRising

Paid Maternity Leave Across the World in 2022 | Business.org

Paid Sick Days | MomsRising

Sanger, Margaret. 1920. “Birth Control — A Parent’s Problem or Woman’s?” from Women and the New Race. In Kolmar, Wendy K. and Frances Bartkowski. 2013. Feminist Theory: A Reader. 4th ed. New York: McGraw Hill: 144-145.

Shackling and Separation: Motherhood in Prison | Journal of Ethics | American Medical Association (ama-assn.org)

Suicide Data and Statistics | Suicide | CDC

The Millennials Not Having Babies Because of Climate Change – The Atlantic

Why women are deciding not to have kids | CNN

[i] Rev. 12:4.

[ii] Sister Outsider, 74.

[iii] African American babies are over twice as likely to die in the first year of their lives as white babies. In 2017, blacks represented 12% of the U.S. adult population but 33% of the sentenced prison population. Whites accounted for 64% of adults but 30% of prisoners. Hispanics represented 16% of the adult population, but 23% of inmates. Finally, 32% of those killed by gun violence in the US are African American. 

[iv] According  to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the murder rate is ten times higher than the national average for women living on reservations, and the third leading cause of death for Native women. According to the National Crime Information Center, in 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls, though the true number is probably higher. In 2020, suicide rates were highest among indigenous youth as compared to other races, and males are four times more likely to die by suicide than females.

[v] Roughly 12,000 pregnant women are incarcerated in the U.S. each year, but only about a dozen states have prison nurseries where babies can stay.  23 states still allow the shackling of women prisoners while laboring and giving birth.  A federal act that would insure against the shackling of imprisoned birthing women did not make it through Congress.  After giving birth, most incarcerated mothers are only allowed  24 hours with their newborn babies who are then either placed with relatives or in foster care.

[vi] Sanger, “Birth Control,” 145.

[vii] In 2018, there were 17 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births in the U.S., more than double that of most other high-income countries In contrast, the maternal mortality ratio was three per 100,000 or fewer in the Netherlands, Norway, and New Zealand. The disparity is in large part due to the exceedingly low number of midwives proportionate to women giving birth, in comparison to the far higher numbers in other countries.  In the U.S. the ratio is 4 midwives per thousand births, in comparison to Sweden with 78/1000, Austria with 75/1000, Norway with 65/1000, and similarly throughout the developed world.

[viii] Maternal Mortality Rates in the United States, 2020 (cdc.gov)

[ix] For example, maternal mortality rates in South Sudan, Chad, and Sierra Leone are more than 1100 per 100,000 births, whereas in the US the comparable number is 19. Nevertheless, the U.S. has the 129th lowest maternal mortality rate out of 184 countries.

[x] Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, No. 19-1392, 597 U.S. ___ (2022) in which the Supreme Court held that the U.S. Constitution does not confer a right to abortion.

[xi] On the high end, Norway provides almost $30,0000/year in childcare. The norm is around $10,000-$20,000 annually. On average in the U.S., parents with two small children spend between 35-40% of their income on childcare.

[xii] Nearly one in three private-sector workers, and 70% of low wage workers, cannot earn one single paid sick day. Nor can they take off work if their child is sick, so many must send their sick children to school and daycare. 

[xiii] 86% of women worldwide have children.

[xiv] Naked Keys, album cover.

[xv] The Second Sex, 64.

[xvi] The original wording is, “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.”

6 thoughts on “Hope Is Giving Birth in the Face of the Dragon by Beth Bartlett”

  1. It’s precisely because of images like this one in Syria that I avoid the news – there is nothing I can do to change this horror story that we are all living near and far. Those who are not as image based as I am may be able to tolerate these images but I cannot.


  2. What a powerful essay. Thank you. It makes me think of how devalued birthing is in all its forms — not just giving birth to babies but any activity meant to nurture life into greater being, whether that is healing, teaching, working on the land, etc. Your post is a call for a new way of being for all of us!


  3. Thank you, Carolyn. Your remarks are so true — another consequence of mind/body value dualism in our culture.


  4. Brava! Wonderful observations. Clearly women and their life giving abilities are taken for granted. Their suffering, their blood, their pain, the threat to their own lives – all an after thought. Rarely discussed. Rarely their resilience applauded. This lack of appreciation, awe, reverence should not be normalized. So much needs to be realigned. Birth needs to be witnessed by more people especially men…let them hear the screams, let the suffering be visceral, put their hands in the blood… so that they get on their knees and give thanks to the mother of their children. We have sanitized birth, minimized what transpires and only think about the end result: birth. Never is the wreckage of the women’s body post delivery discussed. I think saving men from this total experience is a mistake.


Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: