We birth with others: Towards a Beauvoirian understanding of obstetric violence

European Journal of Women's Studies 28 (2):213-228 (2021)
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Abstract

Obstetric violence – psychological and physical violence by medical staff towards women giving birth – has been described as structural violence, specifically as gender violence. Many women are affected by obstetric violence, with awful consequences. The phenomenon has so far been mainly investigated by the health and social sciences, yet fundamental theoretical and conceptual questions have gone unnoticed. Until now, the phenomenon of obstetric violence has been understood as one impeding autonomy and individual agency and control over the body. In this article I will argue that the phenomenon of obstetric violence occurs in a specific state of embodied vulnerability and that might be destructive for subjectivity since it fails to recognize that state and instead disallows support and demolishes relationships and interdependence. This might introduce a conceptual shift and the phenomenon might be reconceptualized as a moment where vulnerability is misrecognized and ambiguity, relations and support are banned. In this case violence is recognized as cutting the original links to our bodies and the world that constitute our phenomenological condition, instead of as hurting the autonomous subject. Obstetric violence, thus, calls to be reflected upon through de Beauvoir’s ideas on ambiguity, the embodied and situated subject and the subject as essentially construed in relations. I believe that de Beauvoir’s conception of the authentic embodied subject as necessarily ambiguous – immanent and transcendent at the same time and ineludibly linked to the world and its others – will be extremely useful for construing this new understanding of how obstetric violence happens and of what precisely constitutes its damage.

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