Liberating the Pregnant Body

My paper ‘Liberating the Pregnant Body: disempowerment and disembodiment in maternity care’ on my new research project on a care ethical view of maternity was enthusiastically responded to by the audience of the Global Carework Summit in Toronto last week. One response came from a mother present together with her baby. She responded as a carework researcher and a mother. She had never realized, and was now stunned at, how little she had thought about the pregnant body with regard to carework, even during her own recent pregnancy. Like myself she was amazed at how it is largely lacking in philosophy, sociology, and political (care) ethics.

Logo Global Carework Summit

Mother and Artist Shira Richter

Recently I had the honor to meet Israeli mother and artist Shira Richter. We immediately connected as mothers of twins. In our research network ‘concerning maternity’ she showed many of her works which are artistic interpretions and expressions of the many aspects concerned in mothering: the bodily marks after pregnancy, the pacifying effect of pacifiers and baby bottle teats, the not so helpful comments and advice offered by others. Admire her work and read this interview and this interview.

She is also an activist in a country where becoming a mother means producing a soldier for its defense. She showed an image of a fetus making a military salute and wearing a military baret. It was from an advertisement from an Israeli maternity hospital (that appears in this YouTube video). A shocking social imaginary. In this militarized context, maternity means something else than in a peaceful context like my own, and it came as a shock to me to learn this.

Care ethics: adequate for midwifery

With great interest I have read this study by Elizabeth Newnham and Mavis Kirkham who develop a care ethical outlook on midwifery as adequate alternative to bioethical and medical emphasis on respect for autonomy. The authors argue convincingly that the concept of autonomy is as such inadequate in ethical questions in midwifery care. Not only is a relational instead of an individualistic view required, as the pregnant woman is two-in-one, also autonomy does not represent the actual obstetric practice that already focuses on the unborn and is not free from paternalism. Hence attention and arguments for autonomy in everyday midwifery practice seem to be primarily rhetorical. An adequate alternative, the authors claim, is care ethics as it uncovers power relations (instead of covering them up) and focuses on concrete relational practices rather than abstract principles. A view that importantly underpins our research.

Duden on maternity

Reading and studying Barbara Duden’s book is both a thrilling and shocking experience. She writes on the disembodiment of pregnancy, i.e. how pregnancy became a concept that can be thought of – even by pregnant women themselves – without including a woman’s body. Even after 25 years it has lost nothing of its relevance, considered in the light of many recent developments.

In this extended essay I want to call attention to the profound consequences, for women and for society, that accompany this public [Pro Life, IvN] dispute. Politicians and jurists, theologians and physicians are engaged in a major effort of social creation whose object is “life.” As a result of this effort, a new idea has become universally accepted: just as the Blue Planet – “seen” from space – is the environment of all life, so woman is the environment of new life. Almost overnight, these beliefs have become growth industries for new professional establishments, from ecological systems engineers to bioethicists, to manage. Concurrently, the term life (and a life) has become an idol, and controversy has attached a halo to this idol that precludes its dispassionate use in ordinary discourse. This book deals with the history of this idol – the history of life not as an object but as a notion. I want to examine the conditions under which a new discourse has transformed pregnancy into a process to be managed, the expected child into a fetus, the mother into an ecosystem, the unborn into a life, and life into a supreme value. (Duden, 1993, p.2)

Duden’s historical research of pregnancy

Today I started to study this classical work by Barbara Duden: a fascinating analysis of our culture’s preoccupation with the visible, i.e. everything that can be witnessed, measured, controlled and interpreted. With regard to pregnancy the consequences are unreflected but severe: the disembodiment of women. Historically women’s experience of pregnancy was fundamentally different. A must read!