Skip to main content

The Political “Nature” of Pregnancy and Childbirth

  • Candace Johnson (a1)

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.

Corresponding author
Candace Johnson, Department of Political Science, University of Guelph, 50 Stone Road East, Guelph, Ontario, CanadaN1G 2W1,
Hide All
Alberta Association of Midwives. 2007. (Dec. 18, 2007).
Appiah, K. Anthony. 1996. “Race, Culture, Identity: Misunderstood Connection.” In Colour Consciousness: The Political Morality of Race, ed. Appiah, K. Anthony and Gutmann, Amy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Association of Ontario Midwives. 2008. (Jan. 21, 2008).
Bamiro, Edmund O. 1991. “The Social and Functional Power of Nigerian English.” World Englishes 10(3): 275–86.
Beauvoir, Simone de. 1952. The Second Sex. London: Vintage Books.
Browne, Annette J. and Fiske, Joanne. 2001. “First Nation's Women's Encounters with Mainstream Health Care Services.” Western Journal of Nursing Research 23(2): 126–47.
Cahill, Heather A. 2000. “Male Appropriation and Medicalization of Child Birth: An Historical Analysis: Philosophical and Ethical Issues.” Journal of Advanced Nursing 33(3): 334–42.
Canadian Association of Midwives. 2008. (Jan. 21, 2008).
CBC. 2007. “Genetics and Reproduction in Depth: Regulating ‘assisted human reproduction.’” (Jan. 29, 2008).
Chodorow, Nancy. 1978. The Reproduction of Mothering. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Chodorow, Nancy. 1989. Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. New Haven: Yale University Press.
CIHI. 2004a. Giving Birth in Canada: A Regional Profile. Ottawa: Canadian Institute for Health Information.
CIHI. 2004b. Giving Birth in Canada: Providers of Maternity and Infant Care. Ottawa: Canadian Institute for Health Information.
CIHI. 2004c. Improving the Health of Canadians. Ottawa: Canadian Institute for Health Information.
CIHI. 2007. Giving Birth in Canada: Regional Trends From 2001–2002 to 2005–2006. Ottawa: Canadian Institute for Health Information.
College of Midwives of British Columbia. 2008. (Jan. 28, 2008).
College of Midwives of Manitoba. 2007. (Dec. 18, 2007).
College of Midwives of Ontario. 2008. (Jan. 28, 2008).
Conrad, Peter. 2007. The Medicalization of Society. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press
De Koninck, Maria. 1998. “Reflections on the Transfer of ‘Progress’: The Case of Reproduction.” In The Politics of Women's Health: Exploring Agency and Autonomy, ed. Sherwin, Susan. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Firestone, Shulamith. 1970. The Dialectic of Sex. New York: Bantam Books.
Fountain, L. and Krulewitch, C.J.. 2002. “Trends in Assisted Reproductive Technology.” Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health 47(5): 384–85.
Fox, A.A. 1993. “Split subjectivity in country music and honky-tonk discourse.” In All that glitters: country music in America, ed. Lewis, G.H.. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.
Fukuyama, Francis. 2002. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Garry, Ann. 2001. “Medicine and Medicalization: A Response to Purdy.” Bioethics 15(3): 262–69.
Gilligan, Carol. 1993. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Goslinga-Roy, Gillian M. 2000. “Body Boundaries, Fiction of the Female Self.” Feminist Studies 26(1): 113–40.
Gunn, Jane, Hegarty, Kelsey, Nagle, Cate, Forster, Della, Brown, Stephanie and Lumley, Judith. 2006. “Putting Woman-Centered Care into Practice: A New (ANEW) Approach to Psychosocial Risk Assessment during Pregnancy.” Birth 33(1): 4655.
Haraway, Donna J. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
hooks, bell. 2000. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
Hoyert, Donna L., Danel, Isabella and Tulley, Patricia. 2000. “Maternal Mortality, United States and Canada, 1982–1997.” Birth 27(1): 411.
Inuit Tapiriit Kantami (ITK). 2004. Evaluation models of health care delivery in Inuit regions. Ottawa: ITK.
Inuit Tapiriit Kantami and Nunavut Research Institute. 2006. Negotiating Research Relationships with Inuit Communities: A Guide for Researchers. Igloolik, NU: Nunavut Research Institute.
Jasen, Patricia. 1997. “Race, Culture, and the Colonization of Childbirth in Northern Canada.” Social History of Medicine 10(3): 383400.
Kelland, Kate. 2007. Freebirthers Dismiss Fear and Bring Babies Home. Reuters. (June 22, 2007).
Klein, Michael C. 2004. “Quick Fix Culture: The Cesarean-Section-on-Demand Debate.” Birth 31(1): 161–64.
Lock, Margaret. 1998. “Situating Women in the Politics of Health.” In The Politics of Women's Health: Exploring Agency and Autonomy, ed. Sherwin, Susan. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Lupton, Deborah. 2000. “‘A Love/Hate Relationship’: The Ideals and Experiences of First-time Mothers.” Journal of Sociology 36(1): 5063.
MacDonald, Margaret. 2004. “Tradition as a Political System in the New Midwifery in Canada.” In Reconceiving Midwifery, ed. Bourgeault, Ivy Lynn, Benoit, Cecilia and Davis-Floyd, Robbie. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press.
Mahoney, Maureen A. and Yngvesson, Barbara. 1992. “The Construction of Subjectivity and the Paradox of Resistance: Reintegrating Feminist Anthropology and Psychology.” Signs 18(1): 4473.
Martínez, Rebecca G. 2004. “'What's wrong with me?': Cervical Cancer in Venezuela: Living in the Borderlands of Health, Disease, and Illness.” Social Science and Medicine 61: 797808.
Midwives Alliance of North America. 2007. (June 22, 2007).
Midwives Association of British Columbia. 2007. (Dec. 18, 2008).
Mignolo, Walter D. and Tlostanova, Madina V.. 2006. “Theorizing from the Borders: Shifting to Geo- and Body-Politics of Knowledge.” European Journal of Social Theory 9(2): 205–21.
Miller, Toby. 1993. The Well-Tempered Self: Citizenship, Culture, and the Postmodern Subject. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Mitchell, Lisa and Georges, Eugenia. 1997. “Cross-Cultural Cyborgs: Greek and Canadian Women's Discourses on Fetal Ultrasounds.” Feminist Studies 23(2): 373.
Morgan, Kathryn Pauly. 1998. “Contested Bodies, Contested Knowledges: Women, Health, and the Politics of Medicalization.” In The Politics of Women's Health: Exploring Agency and Autonomy, ed. Sherwin, Susan. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Nestel, Sheryl. 2006. Obstructed Labour: Race and Gender in the Re-Emergence of Midwifery. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Newnham, Liz. 2006. “The Midwife's Role: Challenges and Changes in the Post-medical Movement towards Woman-centred Care.” Australian Journal of Midwifery 14(4): 1215.
PAHO. 2005. Gender, Health, and Development in the Americas: Basic Indicators 2005. Washington, DC: Pan American Health Organization.
Parry, Diana C. 2006. “Women's Lived Experience with Pregnancy and Midwifery in a Medicalized and Fetocentric Context.” Qualitative Inquiry 12: 459.
Pizzato, Mark. 2003. “Soyinka's Bacchae, African Gods, and Postmodern Mirrors.” Journal of Religion and Theatre 2(1): 35104.
Public Health Agency of Canada. 2005. Make Every Mother and Child Count: Report on Maternal and Child Health in Canada. (May 9, 2006).
Purdy, Laura. 2001. “Medicalization, Medical Necessity and Feminist Medicine.” Bioethics 15(3): 249–61.
Rich, Adrienne. 1986. Of Woman Born. New York: W.W. Norton.
Root, Robin and Browner, C.H.. 2001. “Practices of the Pregnant Self: Compliance with and Resistance to Prenatal Norms.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 25: 195223.
Ruddick, Sara. 1995. Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace. Boston: Beacon Press.
Scala, Francesca, Montpetit, Eric and Fortier, Isabelle. 2005. “The NAC's Organizational Practices and the Politics of Assisted Reproductive Technologies in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 38(3): 581604.
Shanley, Laura. 2008. Bornfree! (Jan. 28, 2008).
Sherwin, Susan. 1998. “Introduction.” In The Politics of Women's Health: Exploring Agency and Autonomy, ed. Sherwin, Susan. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada. 2006. Shortage of Ob/Gyns, Aboriginal Health Top SOGC President's Agenda. News Release: SOGC Annual Clinical MeetingVancouverJune 22–27.
Somerson, Wendy. 2004. “White Men on the Edge: Rewriting the Borderlands in Lone Star.” Men and Masculinities 6(3): 215–39.
Somerville, Margaret. 2000. The Ethical Canary: Science, and Society and the Human Spirit. Toronto: Viking Press.
Statistics Canada. 2006. The Daily: Monday, July, 31. (Jan. 29, 2008).
Stewart, Donna E. 2006. “Analysis: A Broader Context for Maternal Mortality.” Canadian Medical Association Journal 174(3): 302–03.
Strozier, Robert M. 2002. Foucault, Subjectivity, and Identity: Historical Constructions of Subject and Self. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Taylor, Janelle S. 2000. “Of Sonograms and Baby Prams: Prenatal Diagnosis, Pregnancy and Consumption.” Feminist Studies 26(2): 391.
UN Millennium Project. 2005. Task Force on Child Health and Maternal Health. Who's Got the Power? Transforming Health Systems for Women and Children. London: Earthscan.
Wacquant, Loïc. 2004. “Following Pierre Bourdieu into the Field.” Ethnography 5(4): 387414.
Weir, Lorna. 2006. Pregnancy, Risk and Biopolitics: On the threshold of the living subject. London and New York: Routledge.
Wenman, Wanda M., Joffres, Michel R., Tataryn, Ivanna V. and Group, the Edmonton Perinatal Infectious. 2004. “A Prospective Cohort Study of Pregnancy Risk Factors and Birth Outcomes in Aboriginal Women.” Canadian Medical Association Journal 171(6): 585–89.
Whitbeck, Caroline. 1972. “The Maternal Instinct.” In Mothering Essays in Feminist Theory, ed. Treblicot, Joyce. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld.
White, Kevin. 1991. “Feminist Approaches to the Sociology of Health.” Current Sociology 39(2): 5057.
Wolf, Naomi. 2003. Misconceptions: Truth, Lies, and the Unexpected on the Journey to Motherhood. New York: Anchor Books.
World Health Organization. Department of Reproductive Health and Research. 2004. Maternal Mortality in 2000: Estimates Developed by WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA. Geneva: World Health Organization.
Yamin, Alicia Ely and Maine, Deborah P.. 2005. “Maternal Mortality as a Human Rights Issue: Measuring Compliance with International Treaty Obligations.” In Perspectives on Health and Human Rights, ed. Gruskin, Sofia. New York: Routledge.
Young, Iris Marion. 1984. “Pregnant Embodiment: Subjectivity and Alienation.” The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 9: 4562.
Zola, Irving Kenneth. 1972. “Medicine as an Institution of Social Control.” Sociological Review 20: 487504.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue canadienne de science politique
  • ISSN: 0008-4239
  • EISSN: 1744-9324
  • URL: /core/journals/canadian-journal-of-political-science-revue-canadienne-de-science-politique
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed