Colorful infant shirts are on display in rows in a field.

Babylost: An Interview with Monica Casper

Sociologist Monica Casper, who has written previously on fetal surgery, has published a new book called Babylost: Racism, Survival, and the Quiet Politics of Infant Mortality, from A to Z. The book consists of a series of essays related to stillbirth and newborn death, arranged alphabetically by topic.

Lara: In my research for The Myth of the Perfect Pregnancy, I did not come across the term “babylost,” and I was just so struck and moved by it. As I was reading your book I wondered, is this your own term? Or did you find it during your research? Where’s this term from? And why did you use it as your title?

Black and white headshot of Monica Casper.
Monica J. Casper is the dean of the College of Arts and Letters at San Diego State University in California. (Courtesy Monica J. Casper)

Monica: Some of the stories that are in, for example, Still Standing magazine referred to “babyloss” as one word, as opposed to “baby” and then “loss.” It really struck me because part of what I wanted to do with this book was draw attention to the loss itself, and not necessarily the quantitative measure of infant mortality, which I had planned to focus on in an earlier version of the book. Focusing on the babylost is a way of centering, particularly women, but also families and others who have lost pregnancies or children.

Lara: I found it evocative and really intriguing and important that it was a noun, an identity, and also a verb in various places in your book. I found that to be compelling and useful for thinking about it.

Monica: I hope people pick it up. This is one of the hopes when we write books, that people will find the things in them that are useful conceptually and otherwise.

Lara: Your book is in a unique format, alphabetizing a bunch of different topics related to this idea of babyloss. As I was reading, I started to wonder, could you picture writing another book in this format? Are you encouraging other people to? Did you contemplate other experimental formats as you were figuring out your manuscript? I wondered whether it was informed by the genre of the blog, which historians have started to use in interesting and sophisticated ways.

Monica: That’s interesting, the blog piece. Originally the book was going to be a more standard sociological feminist/science and technology studies look at quantification, and the ways that we quantify infant mortality. But I found myself abstracting more than I wanted to be abstracting. I was uncomfortable with it, because part of my argument is that because of the abstraction, infant mortality hasn’t gotten attention as the kind of public health emergency issue that it is.

I also do other creative writing, and I’ve played with different forms in my other work. I wanted to write something evocative, compelling, that would not scare non-academics away. I’ve always tried to make my work as accessible as I can. I have read a few other alphabetized books, not just alphabet books, but books that play with that format, and I was struck by them, and thought that because this is also about children and babies, there’s something poignant about having this be an alphabet book.

Lara: I’m curious whether you had moments where juxtapositions surprised you, or meant something different to you, once you put the essays together. I was really struck by “abuse” being the second entry, for example.

Monica: What I like about this format is that what comes across in the introduction, I hope, is that people can move around as they need to. I had real concerns about what it would feel like for people who have suffered losses to read each of these entries, what they would find compelling or disturbing. I thought a lot about the “abuse” chapter. I wasn’t sure I would include it, but I felt like it needed to be there, in part because it gets included in demographic and epidemiological research as a category, but it’s never really talked about very much.

Lara: When you began your research, racial disparities in mother and baby deaths and racism in healthcare were receiving little attention in the mainstream press. But recently, these topics have actually received a lot of attention, including some significant legislation. From the point of view of a researcher who’s been immersed in this for a very long time, what do you think changed?

Cover of Babylost, featuring colorful baby shirts set up on a lawn.
Babylost is available now. (Courtesy Rutgers University)

Monica: Such a great question. I think one thing that’s shifted is black women being elected to office, pushing an agenda of focusing on health care in a way that was just, I think, too much to ignore. And don’t underestimate the role of having both Serena Williams and Beyonce almost die giving birth. And Chrissy Teigan with her millions of followers, tweeting about losing her son Jack, and putting it on Instagram. And of course having a period of time where Democrats were in office, and there were efforts to do things like deepen and expand the Violence Against Women Act to really focus on health care. Folks like Lauren Underwood, Cory Booker, and others who have been elected are pushing a really important conversation about Black women’s health particularly. I think that’s part of it. I think that some folks, both theoretically and on the ground, have made really good connections between what’s happened around the Black Lives Matter movement: premature death of black people occurs across the life course.

I still do find that the discourse is very focused on maternal health. I worry that Black and Indigenous infant death and all infant death is under-discussed, and it’s underrepresented in the issues that get brought before Congress. I worry that we still don’t see it for the emergency that it is.

Lara: Do you think abortion politics play into it? I wonder if there is a fear of focusing on infants because it would seem like it would mean controlling pregnant women.

Monica: It can feel like the Left got the woman and the Right got the fetus, in this bizarre way. There is something risky about being in a particular set of movements and conversations and advocating for fetuses. Even though reproductive justice organizations have done precisely that. Part of the reason I use the term “quiet politics” is because infant death, child death, babyloss, all of that spectrum, has been so muted compared to our other politics. I was on the board of Planned Parenthood in Arizona, and I could not get them to focus on infant death as a point of concern. Not because they didn’t care. It was just a question of bandwidth.

I also very naively—you would think at a certain age, I would know better—I naively thought of all the times I’ve tried to have conversations with folks on “the other side,” I thought infant death could be a really interesting, communal space, where folks could talk together about how we might save babies. But that proved impossible. People didn’t want to have those conversations.

Lara: That’s so depressing.

Monica: It was so depressing. I know. After all these years, I was like, “finally, I have something I can talk to people about.” And they were like, “Nope.” It just struck me so much, the space where these conversations are happening is still among the reproductive justice organizations led by women of color, where that’s been part of the platform for so long.

Lara: Coming back to your keywords, I noticed “religion” was not included. It would have come between “rainbow baby” and “reproductive justice.” If you were to add it, what would you highlight?

Monica: I would think about the ways that religion shapes the conversation around reproduction, and the unborn, and really undergirds so much of the politics. The other thing that your question makes me think of is a broader question of spirituality. Even as Black maternal and infant health is emerging more as a topic of public conversation, I’m not seeing something similar around Indigenous baby loss. I do wonder if there’s something in that space, thinking about the broader field of indigenous health disparities and geography of health, as ways of thinking through a sort of bodily spirituality.

Also, in the “fathers” chapter, I talk about the barbershops in places like DC and Milwaukee where the Black church plays an interesting role. If somebody wanted to research infant loss or maternal health in the Black church, that’s a place where there’s a nexus of organizing and reaching out.

Lara: A great idea, among the many potential dissertation topics, as you say in the book, that you’re offering to future grad students and scholars!

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