Performing birth in a culture of fear: an embodied crisis of late modernity

Reiger, Kerreen; Dempsey, Rhea
October 2006
Health Sociology Review;Oct2006, Vol. 15 Issue 4, p364
Academic Journal
Drawing on recent multidisciplinary work, this paper considers the emerging sense of a crisis around childbirth in late or post-modern western culture. Not only are many health professionals and birth activists expressing concern about rising rates of medical intervention in birth but physiological birth is increasingly defined as difficult and even unattainable. A decline in cultural and individual confidence in women's birthing capacity seems paradoxical in view of women's increased social power and achievement in the modern west, along with their improved health and living conditions. Many feminist theorists are ambivalent about childbirth developments though, seeing natural birth advocates' critiques of technological birthing as essentialist, moralising and patronising towards women's choices. The paper argues for a theoretical framework that overcomes the tensions between these positions, one which focuses on the interplay between the physiological processes and the internalisation of cultural norms. The paper draws on seemingly disparate work from feminist cultural analysis and philosophy, and from physiology and neuropsychology, to argue that childbirth is collectively and individually performed. It is best seen as an active embodied practice, as a 'biopsychocultural' activity. The final section of the paper then uses this framework to examine parallels between the challenges of birthgiving and those of intense creative effort in fields such as sport and the arts. It identifies the importance of embodied interactions in managing the crisis of confidence commonly experienced by performers struggling with emotionally challenging tasks. Cultural norms of anxiety and fear of birth can be materialised in the body through social processes that instil or diminish women's confidence of 'doing' childbirth, thus limiting women's capacity to experience the agency of their lived bodies in the performance of birthing.


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