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Birth as an American Rite of Passage

Review by Judy Hochberg

Copyright 1994 by Judy Hochberg

Birth as an American Rite of Passage, by Robbie Davis-Floyd, is a revision of the author's Ph.D. dissertation in anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. Your local and/or university library will have it. It was first published by the University of California Press in 1992.

Like many childbirth books, this book describes why various obstetric interventions are unnecessary and even dangerous (there's an umpteen-page bibliography). What's unique about the book is that it proposes a completely brilliant and original explanation for why doctors continue to practice the way they do, and, very interestingly, why most American women accept obstetric interventions even if they were originally planning natural childbirth.

Basically, Davis-Floyd argues that modern obstetric practices are elaborate birthing rituals that support a technocratic view of childbirth and of society as a whole. Women are easily sucked into hi-tech births because the technocratic perspective is deeply ingrained into us as members of our culture, and because technology has, in general, been very good to us.

This sounds potentially flaky but she makes a very strong case for it. And how else can one explain the persistence of interventions such as routine episiotomy, in the face of scientific evidence that they cause more harm than good? Once ritualized, the behavior is very difficult to eradicate.

The book includes birth stories, in their own words, from women with birth experiences ranging from homebirth to elective C-sections. It is on my 'it changed my life' shelf along with Siblings Without Rivalry and The Feminine Mystique.

If you are planning natural childbirth this book will give you the facts and the cognitive ammunition you will need in a normal hospital setting. If you are planning a painless birth, the book might provide insight into the cultural context of your decision.

Judy Hochberg is a a three-time birthing mother


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Last updated May 29, 1996 by
Donna Dolezal Zelzer
, djz@efn.org