Reproduction Matters

Every January 1st, local news outlets feature joyous accounts of the first babies born in the new year—a tradition that highlights auspicious beginnings. But throughout the year, few topics capture headlines as frequently as those related to reproduction. On any given day, a glance at the front page of a major newspaper or online source will reveal this fact. It is no wonder: as sociologists and anthropologists have long shown, attitudes about reproduction reflect deeply-held values, norms, and anxieties. It is an understatement to say that the topic of reproduction hits nerves and flares sentiments. Perhaps this is so because reproduction is inherently about looking toward the future—futures lost, futures solidified, futures imagined. It fills our cultural imaginations, from the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale series to gossip headlines that detail celebrities’ pregnancies and experiences of parenthood.

Yet, with some exceptions, reproduction has not historically inhabited a central place in academic studies. Aside from demographers who study fertility trends, and the notable medical sociologists and anthropologists who have drawn attention to the central role that reproduction plays in people’s lives and in the makeup of society, reproduction is usually designated as a marginal area of study. This contradiction—the centrality of reproduction in public discourse and its ancillary study in the academy—has been answered by the proliferation of scholarship on reproduction over the past decade.

Volume 20 of the renowned Emerald series, Advances in Medical Sociology, which I co-edited with Elizabeth Mitchell Armstrong (Princeton) and Susan Markens (CUNY), brings attention to this expanding area of research. The volume, Reproduction, Health, and Medicine (2020), engages cutting-edge scholarship in health and medicine that pivots on matters of reproduction. The book covers a wide range of reproductive topics. Authors examine, among other things, the C-section epidemic, the management of risk in childbirth, pregnancy weight gain, the end of the reproductive life course (“family completion”), and how pregnant women and grandmothers-to-be negotiate the changing landscape of information about best pregnancy practices. Analysis provided in this book wonderfully aids in our understanding of why some women opt to give birth with midwives or outside of hospitals, and several fascinating chapters delve into the lived experiences and persistent politics of abortion, pregnancy, and childbirth—topics that will continue to push scholarship (and permeate politics) for years to come. While most of the chapters focus on the United States, the book spotlights global topics as well. Siri Suh (Brandeis) writes about post-abortion care in Senegal, where abortion is severely restricted. Suh powerfully argues that studies of reproduction must take a global view of reproductive practices to advance knowledge about reproductive politics, medical care, and technologies. In another chapter, Cara Delay and Beth Sundstrom (College of Charleston) analyze the history of symphysiotomy in Ireland, a medical practice that involves cutting tissue around the joint of the pelvis during childbirth instead of performing a cesarean section. Rare today, this practice continued longer in Ireland than in other countries, and Delay and Sundstrom reveal how religious, state, and medical influences on medical protocol can ignore women’s preferences and give little heed to women’s control over their own reproductive experiences. In a chapter that urges us to pay attention to cultural assumptions surrounding medical interventions, Ashley Kim (Vanderbilt) deftly depicts the experiences of refugee mothers in the U.S. as they decide whether or not to adopt particular pain relief strategies during childbirth.

One of the most significant frameworks in the contemporary study of reproduction—and one that threads through the chapters in this volume—is reproductive justice. Coined and advanced by women of color, reproductive justice is defined not only by reproductive rights (a concept typically associated with abortion rights and white feminism) but also by the right to become a parent and to parent with dignity. Egregious affronts to such justice, from family separations at the border to the intensifying trend of incarcerating pregnant women, bare the fact that reproductive justice is an ongoing struggle for many in the United States and around the world. The chapters in this volume share the theme of highlighting the fundamental need to address reproductive justice in all research and dialogue about reproduction in contemporary society.

This published collection is timely. We live in a moment of increasing restrictions on reproductive rights and continuous offensives on reproductive justice.  While every day families experience the joy of a newborn child, the maternal mortality rate in the United States is abysmal compared to other wealthy nations. And an upcoming Supreme Court decision concerning a Louisiana law will likely define abortion access for a generation or more. All reasons to remember that in this new year, as in all years, reproduction matters.

Miranda R. Waggoner is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Greenwall Faculty Scholar in Bioethics at Florida State University, where she is also affiliated with the Center for Demography and Population Health. Her research examines the social, ethical, and cultural dimensions of biomedical knowledge production.

The featured image is from Wikipedia.

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