Project (2018-2019)

Women and Birth in Transition: The Politics of Childbirth Medicalization in Reform Era China

In the second half of the twentieth century, childbirth practices in China were increasingly subject to biomedical technologies, due to the expansion of the country’s hospital infrastructure and its family planning bureaucracy. Starting from the 1990s, under the influence of the United Nations’s Millennium Goals, China approached a condition of universal hospital births, but this transition was accompanied by a dramatic increase in cesarean sections. Between 2008 and 2014, the average cesarean rate was as high as 32.9 percent, more than double the rate recommended by the World Health Organization.

This project is one of the first qualitative research projects in the social sciences to focus on the larger narratives of “master planning” that made this surge in the number of cesarean births possible. Drawing on detailed ethnographic case studies collected in major cities in the Pearl River Delta region and in rural Guangdong province, this project situates women’s changing birthing experiences in the context of larger processes of social and technological transformation. The project focuses on two major questions. First, the project analyzes the late-twentieth-century emergence of a set of technocratic political rationalities aimed at controlling female reproductive life and governing the life of the population. Second, the project explores the moral dimensions of such technocratic rationalities, showing how the spread of new birthing technologies has allowed the construction of new female moral subjectivities, while giving rise to moral frictions within families, between generations, and in society writ large. 

This project is being developed in collaboration with J. Zhang (City University) and is part of a larger working group on "Technology, Women, and Reproductive Labor in East Asia, 1800s–2000s” with Jacob Eyferth (Chicago) and Suzanne Gottschang (Smith).