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08-18-2003

Clarkson History Professor's Research Offers Alternative Theory Of Modern Medicalization Of Childbirth

In researching and writing the history of American health care, scholars have emphasized the medicalization of motherhood after the Second World War. 

“The shift in 20th century childbirth from the domain of the at-home laboring mother attended by a midwife or family member to a white-coated male doctor in an antiseptic hospital has been considered a classic example of the obliterating triumph of science and expertise over tradition and faith,” said Clarkson University Professor of History Laura Ettinger.

“However, my own research into childbirth and prenatal care practices of the period demonstrates the shift was not all-pervasive and did not go unchallenged,” she added. “Religion and traditional techniques continued to play an important role, and offered an alternative to the emerging scientific approach to maternity.”

Ettinger is the author of several articles on the history of American nurse-midwifery and the culture of childbirth.

One of her articles, “Mission to Mothers: Nuns, Latino families, and the Founding of Santa Fe’s Catholic Maternity Institute,” has been included in Women, Health, and Nation: Canada and the United States Since 1945, a book of scholarly essays published by the Mc-Gill-Queen’s University Press this spring.

In the article, she uses as her model the Catholic Maternity Institute (CMI), founded in Santa Fe, N.M. in 1944, by the Medical Mission Sisters. CMI trained nuns and laywomen to become nurse-midwives and then provided prenatal, labor and delivery and postnatal care to poor Latina women. 

“Long before the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s began to address the bureaucratization of motherhood, it was already being challenged by organizations like CMI, which sought to mix faith in religion with faith in science and offered the advantages of medical science without the disadvantages of depersonalized, assembly line care,” explained Ettinger.

According to Ettinger, the nuns provided a middle ground between the traditional pateras, community lay midwives with no medical training, and the male-dominated health care community. Mothers laboring with the CMI-trained lay and nun nurse-midwives delivered at home, were encouraged, soothed through labor and prayed over.  But they also received regular exams and prenatal care.”

Ettinger is quick to point out that the Catholic Church, in large part, to compete with Protestants in the growing area of professional health and preserve Catholic teaching on family and birth control, sanctioned the nuns’ involvement in midwifery.

“It was as much to provide good health care as it was to preserve souls. Prior to 1936, nuns were prohibited from caring for laboring women as it did not seem fitting work for virgins pledged to God.”

“Still,” she added, “programs like CMI gave nuns the opportunity to obtain medical and nursing degrees from Catholic hospitals and universities, and their patients an opportunity to combine their own view of birth, as a natural, religious event occurring in the home, with the promise and status of safe, modern, scientific and professional care. It remains, in many ways, a model of what we are now working to achieve in modern obstetrics and women’s health care.”

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Michael P. Griffin, director of News & Digital Content Services, at 315-268-6716 or mgriffin@clarkson.edu.]

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