Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

Obstetrical Rituals and Cultural Anomaly: Part I

Academic journal article Pre- and Peri-natal Psychology Journal

Obstetrical Rituals and Cultural Anomaly: Part I

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: A constant reminder that babies come from women and nature, not from technology and culture, childbirth calls into question our attempts at technological dominance of nature, confronting American society with a series of conceptual dilemmas with practical, procedural ramifications: how to create a sense of cultural control over birth, a natural process resistant to such control? How to make a birth, a powerfully female phenomenon, reinforce, instead of undermine, the patriarchal system upon which American society is still based? In the absence of universal baptism, how to enculturate a non-cultural baby?

Some of these dilemmas are universal problems presented by the birth process to all human societies; others are specific to American culture. Each contains within it a fundamental paradox, an opposition which must be culturally reconciled lest the anomaly of its existence undermine the fragile technology-based conceptual system in terms of which American society understands itself. After a brief discussion of the history of this technological paradigm, analysis of eight of these dilemmas will demonstrate how they have been neatly resolved by obstetrical rituals specifically designed to remove birth's conceptual threat to the technological model by making birth appear to confirm instead of challenge the basic tenets of that model. The ultimate goal of the presentation is to offer a convincing anthropological answer to the question that plagues so many of those involved with birth, "Since most standard obstetrical procedures are so irrational, why are they so universally used?"

Ritual forms an essential part of the matrix that organizes people into the social structure, and provides the glue that holds the social and cognitive structures together. . . . Its principal function . . . is to provide what we have termed the stage one state: the state that maximizes a single, univariate orientation to reality at any level of analysis-physiological, psychological, or social.

John McManus

The Spectrum of Ritual


Every woman giving birth in an American hospital is faced with a standardized set of technologically-oriented procedures which will shape her experience of childbirth and often will even determine the outcome of that experience. As American birth becomes increasingly technological, increasing numbers of women have raised their voices in protest of a system that they see not only as dehumanizing and disempowering to women, but also as illogical and nonsensical [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]. As evidence of the unnecessary and often harmful nature of obstetrical procedures is accumulated and published by the medical [7, 8, 9] and lay presses [10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17], more and more individuals involved with birth are asking how it is possible that a medical specialty that purports to be scientific can appear to be so "irrational." These individuals cite such common obstetrical practices as the placement of the woman in the lithotomy position for birth [18], the frequent performance of episiotomies [19], and the Cesarean deliveries of nearly 25% of American babies [20] as examples of such irrationality.

Although as a woman I was led by much of this literature, as well as by interviews with over one hundred mothers and many of their birth attendants [21], to question the "scientific" legitimacy of obstetrical procedures, as an anthropologist I have learned that most cultural behaviors which at first appear to be irrational usually turn out, upon closer investigation, to make excellent sense and to play important and meaningful roles within the context of the overall cultural system. If so-called "primitive" customs like initiatory scarification or drinking the ashes of dead relatives are perfectly logical extensions of cultural assumptions about reality, then wouldn't there be something equally as sensible about the cultural treatment of birth in the American hospital? …

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