Male appropriation and medicalization of childbirth: an historical analysis

J Adv Nurs. 2001 Feb;33(3):334-42. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2648.2001.01669.x.


Aims of the paper: This paper aims to explore through historical analysis some of the means by which medicine successfully appropriated and medicalized pregnancy and childbirth and to consider the impact that this has had on women's experiences within maternity care.

Background and rationale: The appropriation and medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth by men are rooted in a patriarchal model that has been centuries in the making. A model that perceives women as essentially abnormal, as victims of their reproductive systems and hormones, it is also one that defines pregnancy as inherently pathological - a clinical crisis worthy of active intervention. In both law and medicine men have used their power to define reproduction as a biological defect (LeMoncheck L. 1996 Journal of Clinical Ethics 7, 160--176), requiring both legal regulation and medical intervention, whilst feminist writers have long argued that women's experiences within the health care system at least to some extent reflects their social position.

Conclusions: Male justifications of female inferiority have been developed and nurtured through professional discourses and socialization processes inherent within medical education and practice (Cahill H. 1999 MA Thesis, University of Keele). These assumptions are internalized and reproduced to shape quite profoundly, the nature of doctors' interactions with women in their care. Perhaps more fundamentally, such discursive explanations of women's bodies as inherently defective continue to shape women's position in society. Maternity care is a key area in which women's ability to exercise real choice and make informed decisions is limited and where doctor-patient interactions are themselves constructions of existing gender orders; women's autonomy continues to be violated through both quite subtle and overt discourse and practice.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Gender Identity
  • History, 17th Century
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Labor, Obstetric*
  • Male
  • Maternal Health Services / history*
  • Midwifery / history*
  • Obstetrics / history*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prejudice
  • Professional Practice / history
  • Professional Practice / standards
  • Social Control, Formal
  • Western World / history
  • Women's Rights / history