Shifting the Medical Gaze: Towards a Feminist Ethic of Childbirth

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Shifting the Medical Gaze: Towards a Feminist Ethic of Childbirth

The term "reproductive rights" has become synonymous with abortion rights, birth control access, and issues surrounding reproductive technologies, yet the struggle for a woman's right to choose when and how to become pregnant often overshadows a woman's right to choose where and how to give birth. The lack of feminist discourse and activism surrounding issues of childbirth may attest to the hegemony in the modern American birth ritual of increasing medical intervention from obstetricians in hospital settings. There are currently several movements to challenge this dominant birth model--prepared childbirth advocates offer education classes and natural childbirth advocates
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But this was not always the dominant American birth model. Much of feminist history recounts the days (usually portrayed as the good ol' days) when childbirth was considered the province of women as they gave birth at home with the aid and supervision of female relatives, neighbors, or, most often, a midwife. Midwives were not formally trained, but skills were usually passed down from woman to woman through a form of apprenticeship. Their control of childbirth was mostly informal and they operated through a system of cooperation and mutual aid. Men were only marginally involved, if they were not excluded all together.

The transformation of childbirth in American occurred at the turn of the nineteenth century as birth was transferred from the domain of women and the female midwife (a term meaning "with women") to the dominant realm of male obstetrics (from the Latin word obstare meaning "to stand before"). It is a story embedded with issues of race, gender, and economics that has almost become mythological as it is now often used to represent the ultimate battle between male authority and female autonomy. Yet, Jana Sawicki problematizes this historical view saying,

Told from a Foucauldian perspective, the history of women's procreative bodies is a history with multiple origins, that is, a

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