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The Political “Nature” of Pregnancy and Childbirth

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 December 2008

Candace Johnson*
University of Guelph
Candace Johnson, Department of Political Science, University of Guelph, 50 Stone Road East, Guelph, Ontario, CanadaN1G 2W1,


Abstract. In this paper, I examine the theoretical debates concerning “medicalization” in relation to the empirical trend toward increased demand for “natural” options for childbirth. Many feminist theorists have argued that medical intervention in pregnancy and childbirth is both unwarranted and disempowering and devalues women's own abilities and experiences. Further, it is argued that medicalization (of seemingly natural events) is particularly damaging for women and other marginalized people. In this paper, I explore the claims (of both providers and consumers) concerning medical care for pregnancy and childbirth among privileged populations and ask why rejection of medical care for pregnancy and childbirth is not proportional to disadvantage. It appears to be the case that criticism of medical intervention in pregnancy and childbirth is strongest among privileged women and is expressed consistently as preference for “natural,” “traditional” or “normal” approaches and practices. Reverence for the natural, I argue, is a political claim that asserts social position, identity, and resistance. I consider this political claim to be embodied and demonstrated in the occurrence of a physical and psychic duality, a “split subjectivity,” that is exacerbated by the sharpness of the public-private divide in women's lives.

Résumé. Dans cet article, j'examine le débat théorique sur la médicalisation à la lumière de la vogue actuelle croissante des options plus naturelles pour l'accouchement. De nombreux auteurs féministes ont soutenu que les interventions médicales durant la grossesse et l'accouchement étaient injustifiées et qu'elles privaient les femmes de leur autonomie, tout en dévaluant leur expérience et leurs aptitudes naturelles. De même, la médicalisation (de phénomènes apparemment naturels) est, selon certains, particulièrement néfaste pour les femmes et les groupes marginalisés. Dans cet article, j'explore les affirmations (à la fois des prestataires et des bénéficiaires) concernant l'assistance médicale durant la grossesse et l'accouchement parmi les populations favorisées et je soulève la question de savoir pourquoi le rejet de l'assistance médicale durant la grossesse et l'accouchement n'est pas surtout le fait des milieux défavorisés. Il semble, en effet, que les critiques envers les interventions médicales durant la grossesse et l'accouchement proviennent surtout des femmes de milieux favoriséset que ces dernières manifestent de manière constante une préférence pour les approches et les pratiques «naturelles», «traditionnelles» ou «normales». La révérence envers le naturel est, selon moi, une revendication politique afin d'affirmer sa position sociale, son identité et sa résistance. Je considère que cette revendication politique est incarnée et démontrée par l'existence d'une dualité physique et psychique, une «subjectivité divisée» qui est exacerbée par l'acuité de la division entre le monde public et le monde privé dans la vie des femmes.

Research Article
Copyright © Canadian Political Science Association 2008

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