Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Suzanne Arms, a photojournalist and mother, was motivated by her own sour experience with hospital obstetrics to research the American birth experience. She interviewed and photographed not only credentialed experts—midwives, nurses, and doctors—but also experiential experts—mothers. Based on these interviews and her research into the literature of giving birth, she wrote Immaculate Deception: A New Look at Women and Childbirth in America. She presents a well-constructed argument against routing all births through the hospital, an institution designed to intervene in pathological conditions. Arms’s primary insight is that most births are normal births; that is, they are not pathological at all. The appropriate response to the healthy birth is watchful, unhurried support, not intervention. The appropriate source of this support is the patient and experienced midwife, not the highly paid medical doctor. In the hospital, with its predisposition to discern pathology, normal variations in labor are extremely likely to be labeled abnormal, which starts the laboring woman on a merry-go-round of intervention. Each obstetrical interference causes harm that requires another interference, until the woman loses all control of her own labor.

In Immaculate Deception, Arms interweaves several different types of presentation. Scores of photographs present the visual reality of the world that she describes in the text: harsh institutional labor...

(The entire section is 433 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

After many decades of scanty discussion of American birth customs, the mid-1970’s saw an abrupt crescendo of public debate. Contributing to this sudden interest was the popular experiential psychology movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Many of the schools of thought within that movement (such as transactional analysis, Gestalt therapy, and primal therapy) placed considerable importance on the psychological aftermath of early childhood trauma. It was perhaps only natural that the earliest childhood trauma, birth itself, should finally receive some attention. In addition, the liberalization of sexual behavior of the same period led, as day follows night, to an interest in reclaiming that common accompaniment of sex, the birth of a child.

The year 1975 was a milestone in the reevaluation of technologized obstetrics. By a miracle of synchronicity, this year saw the publication of Immaculate Deception, Frederick Leboyer’s Birth Without Violence, and Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery. In addition to these soon-to-be classics, such lesser-known works as Doris Haire’s The Cultural Warping of Childbirth (1972) and William Woolfolk and Joanna Woolfolk’s The Great American Birth Rite (1975) also appeared. Even in the midst of this sudden abundance of material, Immaculate Deception stood out. Its fine balance of photojournalism, polished prose, sound research, careful logic, and emotional impact earned it generally good reviews. Poet Adrienne Rich compared it favorably to Leboyer’s work.

Arms and her contemporaries left the American birth scene changed. By the very diversity of their approaches—the melodramatic prose of Leboyer, the hippie mysticism of Gaskin, and the good sense of Arms—they managed to establish beyond reasonable argument that American hospital obstetrical practices were damaging mothers and babies. Because of their attempts to demystify and reclaim birth, the intellectual landscape around reproduction shifted significantly. American women gained greater choice in how they can bring children into the world. Anesthetized, high-tech deliveries still occur, but the mother who wants a home birth, a birthing center, or rooming-in in a hospital can find these options if she takes the trouble to look. Breast-feeding is no longer considered odd and eccentric. Midwifery has gained public, if not legal, acceptance. Unfortunately, this progress in the United States has not halted the profit-oriented export of technologized birth fads to other countries. In the rush to Americanize, “progress” often comes to mean imitating the mistakes of the United States.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Behuniak-Long, Susan. “Bibliographic Essay: Feminism and Reproduction.” Choice 29 (October, 1991): 243-251. Lists and briefly describes scores of books that engage issues of reproductive technology from a feminist viewpoint.

Dwinell, Jane. Birth Stories: Mystery, Power, and Creation. Westport, Conn.: Bergin & Garvey, 1992. A midwife’s casebook containing the stories of twenty-one specific births in American hospitals, homes, and birthing centers. Each is accompanied by discussion of the general issues of women’s health care and spirituality that it exemplifies.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women. New York: Anchor Books, 1989. Examines not only the victory of the obstetrical establishment but also the ascendancy of the other psychomedical experts who assumed power over women’s lives: scientists, doctors, psychotherapists, home economists, and child-rearing specialists.

Gaskin, Ina May. Spiritual Midwifery. Rev. ed. Summertown, Tenn.: Book Publishing Company, 1978. This midwifery handbook and compilation of birth stories became one of the primers for the revolution against technologized hospital birth. It blends mysticism and practicality in a way that became typical of the resurgent midwifery movement.


(The entire section is 464 words.)