Male appropriation and medicalization of childbirth: an historical analysis


  • Heather A. Cahill MA BSc RGN RMN RNT Cert Ed

    1. Senior Lecturer and Programmes Leader, Acute and Critical Care, Department of Health Studies, University of York, York, UK
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Heather Cahill, Department of Health Studies, University of York, York District Hospital, Wigginton Road, York YO31 8HE, UK. E-mail:


Male appropriation and medicalization of childbirth: an historical analysis

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. 1996Journal of Clinical Ethics7, 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.