Against Natality: Political Action and the Biopolitics of Medicalized childbirth

Hasper, Jess, Government - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Balfour, Katharine, AS-Dept of Politics, University of Virginia

Arendtian scholars have recently argued that natality, a concept signifying creativity, newness, spontaneity, revolution and freedom, ought to be grounded in lived experiences of birth. This paper traces a history of the politics of childbirth in the United States to argue against the use of birth as a political metaphor. Examining the emergence of gynecology and the role of medical authority within contemporary scenes of childbirth, I examine birth as a primary site for the reproduction of biopower. Thinking with instances of counter-conduct, specifically the action of black midwives and doulas, I reconceptualize birth as political space marked by both resistant acts of care and violence. In so doing, I argue that the concept of natality ought to be set aside, showing that its theoretical usefulness depends on the depoliticization of lived experiences of birth. Further, from an analysis of the operation of power in medicalized birth, I hold that a generative theory of birth must move beyond the Arendtian emphasis on freedom, beginning and newness.

MA (Master of Arts)
Natality, Birth, Biopolitics, Infant Mortality, Maternal Mortality
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