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Research examines the global medical establishment's false perceptions of the weakness of the female body and the greatest health risks to women during childbirth
Josh Murray and Lara Leilani Matthias
In a journal article published this year, Director of the Culture, Brain, and Development program Pamela Stone exposes gender-based oppression, inequality, and “structural violence against reproductive aged women” inherent in modern medical views of childbirth, prevalent since the middle of the 20th century.
Stone calls the paper, published in the January 2016 issue of the peer-reviewed American Journal of Physical Anthropology, “the culmination of years of research.”
In the article, Stone, a Hampshire alum, class of 86F, examines the international medical establishment’s false perceptions of the weakness of the female body and looks at the greatest health risks to women during childbirth.
Today there “are a confluence of issues that disengage our bodies from what we’re meant to do,” Stone says. She contends that women’s bodies evolved specifically to give birth, and that the notion that childbirth is naturally dangerous due to the shape of a woman’s reproductive system is mistaken. She points to statistics showing that women live longer than men as evidence that childbirth has been misrepresented as dangerous.
The death of women during childbirth is a global epidemic and the focus of leaders through the United Nations and other institutions. But since the middle of the 20th century, the prevailing view of the global medical establishment has been that the greatest risk to women during childbirth is their own bodies. Stone argues that it is biomedical and cultural practices along with larger health disparities that increase the risk to women during childbirth.
She believes her article, titled “Biocultural perspectives on maternal mortality and obstetrical death from the past to the present,” will be of interest to parents and “just about anybody who’s thinking about having their own baby, whether they’re carrying it or not.” She hopes her research will correct misperceptions and prompt further thought about modern childbirth.
Stone argues for reframing birth as normal, not pathological, and redirecting international health initiatives on issues of poverty, lack of education, and poor nutrition. This, she believes, will result in better health outcomes for women globally.
In the past, she says, childbirth wasn’t perceived as complicated or dangerous, as it is today, and that before the emergence of our modern healthcare system, birth was more a part of people’s daily lives.
In her abstract, Stone says her research spanned “pelvic architecture and cephalopelvic relationships from the subfields of evolutionary biology, paleoanthropology, bioarchaeology, medical anthropology, and medicine, juxtaposing it with historical, ethnographic, and global maternal health analyses.”
Stone earned her bachelor’s degree from Hampshire and her master’s and doctorate from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She has worked at the Smithsonian Museum and the American Museum of Natural History, and has taught at Western Michigan University and the University of Massachusetts. Her research centers on the intersection of science and culture, particularly women’s health in the past and present, across the globe.
To read Stone’s paper, visit http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ajpa.22906/full.
For more information on Hampshire's Culture, Brain, and Development program, visit https://www.hampshire.edu/areas-of-study/culture-brain-and-development.