Idealized and Industrialized Labor: Anatomy of a Feminist Controversy


  • Jane Clare Jones


Prompted by the ever-increasing cesarean rate, this paper considers the interpretive disjunct between two significant strands of feminist analysis that have arisen in the last four decades as a consequence of the phenomenon of medicalized birth. In contrast to the dominant paradigm of bioethical “Principalism,” both modes of analysis, understood as “the critique of industrialized labor” and “the critique of idealized labor,” are attentive to the way in which social discourses inform bioethical deliberation and practice, but significantly diverge in the nature of their accounts. The “industrialization critique” understands the culture of medical intervention to be impelled by an “obstetric desire” to appropriate women's reproductive potency, whereas the “idealization critique” relates new mothers’ “low childbirth satisfaction” to a pernicious normative ideal propagated by the natural childbirth movement. This paper will explore the anatomy of both critiques and interrogate their fidelity to the phenomenological insight of the body as chiasm between material and ideal. I will argue that while the insights of the idealization critique are well grounded, we must exercise caution about the critique's tendency to reductively understand the embodied experience of labor as entirely discursively produced, a gesture that risks re-performing the dematerialization of women often effected through obstetric intervention itself.