Book Review: “Birth As An American Rite of Passage”

“Birth as an American Rite of Passage” is an important book for learning about the different models and perspectives of childbirth, from the medical or technocratic to the holistic or “natural.” A largely controversial topic, I think the text does a nice job tackling this conversation by sharing information and making thoughtful arguments without ostracizing. Author Robbie Davis-Floyd unpacks cultural beliefs and rationales that have shaped the birth paradigm most widely accepted today, despite it often being problematic and destructive.

Rituals exist within this medicalized system as they do in a holistic, woman-centered system — however the messages received from the technocratic model suggest a different reality, one in which the baby belongs to the system and the woman is a product of core American values. The book describes how the projection of these values affect not only the birthing process, but also the woman’s self-identity.

Questions you should be asking, of which are answered in this book:

  • What are the critical stages involved in the Birth Rite of Passage?
  • Why are the majority of women electing to birth within the technocratic model, rejecting the idea of a biologically natural birth? 
  • How did our societal beliefs about birth become entrenched?
  • How do the beliefs of others significantly impact our own experiences?

A few selected quotes I like:

  • “The human body presents a profound conceptual paradox to our society, for it is simultaneously a creation of nature and the focal point of culture. How can we separate from nature when we are of it?”
  • “Birth is thus a technocratic service that obstetrics supplies to society; the doctor delivers the baby to society. […] If the product is perfect, the responsibility and credit are his; if flawed, the responsibility will transfer to another technical specialist up or down the assembly line; any blame will be categorically assigned to the inherent defectiveness of the mother’s birthing machine.”
  • “As society’s conceptual emphasis shifts from part to whole, from unit to system, the technocratic paradigm itself will transform: science, technology, and institutions will be ideologically redefined as the servants of organic systems that link nature, individuals, and families in an emergent eco-culture. When patriarchy ceases to form any part of our core value matrix, the medical treatment and conceptualization of women’s bodies as inherently defective machines will transform into their redefinition as integrated systems to be understood on their own terms.”

Notes that may be relevant to you:

  • The copy I read is the 1993 version, however there is a 2004 update.
  • While the content is approached with anthropology and feminism in mind, the sample population for the studies was not economically or racially diverse (this point is addressed in the back of the book), and language used is not inclusive.
  • Several differing “methods” of childbirth are compared here, including the Bradley Method, Lamaze and more.
  • Especially interesting is the chapter on obstetric training as a rite of passage that involves layers of socialized viewpoints, leading to the certain continuance and recycling of the system upholding them.

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