W4: Why we need culture and technology

I have always been intrigued by the shift from home birth to hospital birth, and why American culture is so insistent on having children in hospitals instead of at home. Especially in American culture it seems that we almost frown upon home births, seeing them as riskier. I have a unique view of this situation, because if it weren’t for modern medicine and my mother’s decision to have a cesarean section, I would not be alive today.

What I found really interesting about both the Inuit and Hmong’s birthing culture was the importance of a babies’ sex. For example, for the Inuit people the mother is separated from her child after giving birth for a certain length of time according to the sex of the baby (Gabriel, 2016). Hmong men would dig holes depending on a baby’s sex, for a girl the hole for the placenta would be under the parent’s beds and for a boy they would did a hole for the placenta in a place of great honor (Fadiman, 1997). Where birthing differences are strange to us, they are very significant to their own culture. The move from “regular” home birth to a more “medicalized” birth had heavy impacts on both cultures.

In the Inuit culture, policies forced all Inuit women to give birth by evacuation to hospitals in South Canada (Gabriel). This hurt many women who were still nursing a child (since Inuit women nurse their children for long periods of times) because they would have to leave 4 weeks before their due date and could stay up to 7 weeks away from their family. This also was a heavy financial burden since bringing another person with you was not covered. If there was a home emergency, women would need to fly back home on their own dime, only to return to give birth.

Hmong culture emphasized the importance of giving birth in the home. If women did not give birth at home, there were spiritual ramifications that would hurt the mother or child (Fadiman, 1997). The move to a medicalized childbirth, which came after fleeing their homeland due to communist militaries, greatly impacted their way of childbirth. The people believe that after death the soul travels back to its placenta’s burial place and must re-enter it in order to be reborn. In refugee camps, the placentas were burned despite the Hmong’s cultural need of them.

While I can understand why many though medicalized childbirth would help reduce childbirth-related complications, we didn’t consider the ethnic consequences. In both cases of the Hmong and Inuit, medicalization of childbirth created a distance between family members. There was no community surrounding the mother. I thought that this was the saddest effect of the medicalization.

I became increasingly interested the pros and cons of hospital births verses home births. I came across a journal article which found that planned home births were less expected to have the occurrence of lacerations, hemorrhaging, or infections and showed less incidents of babies born with a low birthweight, prematurely, or with need of ventilation. However, home births did tend to triple the neonatal mortality rate (Wax et al, 2010). Like most of my other blog posts, I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to balance culture with our new technologies. Women have given birth for centuries before hospitals were around, and though many lives were lost, I still feel that the emotional experience of birth is so spiritually significant that it cannot be sterilized to the point of what hospitals have made birth into today.

  1. Fadiman, Anne. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, (1997).
  2. Gabriel, Cynthia, Ph. D. “Inuit Birth: Reclaiming Birth Authority.” Lecture. (2016).
  3. Wax, Joseph R., F. Lee Lucas, Maryanne Lamont, Michael G. Pinette, Angelina Cartin, and Jacquelyn Blackstone. “Maternal and Newborn Outcomes in Planned Home Birth vs Planned Hospital Births: A Metaanalysis.” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 203, no. 3 (2010).

5 thoughts on “W4: Why we need culture and technology

  1. It definitely is interesting the way that we as Americans seem to want to see things medicalized. A lot of it I think comes from the way that we see illness: good stuff in, bad stuff out, and any ailments we come down with are a result of the environment around us. There isn’t much superstition as there is in more traditional cultures like the Hmong and Inuits. Statistics would also be a big reason that we choose to medicalize most of our biological processes. For example, the mortality rate of infants in the Inuit society (I believe) was about 50%, whereas the infant mortality rate here in the United States and in most countries that use western medicine is much lower. So statistically speaking, in childbirth and in illness altogether, western medicine accomplishes more check marks on paper. The idea that tears this argument down, however, is the fact that the check marks that are being filled in aren’t necessarily the same cross culturally. So I would be more accurate in saying that mechanically and physically, western bio medicine accomplishes more check marks than traditional medicine. There’s a lot of cool insight to how different people see the world, and medicine is one of the lenses that we can use to try and understand each other a little better. That’s why Anthropology is so cool! Wonderful post, thanks for sharing.

  2. Lindsey,
    I found the point you made about the gender of babies very interesting; it reminded me of the article about birthing practices in South India. The author argues that American doctors view the pregnant woman as a birthing machine that must simply be supervised in case something malfunctions. With that in mind, it makes sense that we don’t have different procedures depending on the gender of the baby like other cultures do. If you consider the mother a machine, then all products of that machine are the same, albeit a bit different in size and features. However, many cultures, such as the Hmong, have very particular practices for many things that most Americans wouldn’t consider significant enough to have strict social rules. Our society says you raise boys to “act like boys”, and raise girls to “act like girls”, then that’s the end of it. What about before that? Or after that? We just don’t have the complex and socially rooted rituals other cultures hold dear, so there’s nobody telling mothers how the placenta should be used- or destroyed. There’s nobody to enforce how a child should be raised (beyond not abusing them, of course), unlike the Inuit community that collectively believe there one correct way to raise and/or punish a child.
    In some ways, our American view of medicalization is well suited to our own culture, and therefore shouldn’t necessarily be changed. However it’s just not right for us to then enforce the same practices for people with different views, as what works well for one culture won’t work as well for another culture.

  3. Hey Lindsey,
    I think that your analysis of the situation is very interesting and quite compelling. I like that you brought up your own situation of having to have been born in a hospital, because even though most of us were probably born in hospitals we may not have been truly impacted by it. I think that you bring up a very good point about needing a balance between preserving cultural practices, but also using the technology that we have to our advantage. You may be interested in the documentary The Business of Being Born. I watched it for my movie review assignment and the film makers did a very good job of talking about the pros to home births but also acknowledging that not all births should happen at home, and that there are definitely births that should take place in a hospital. So like the Inuit women that we learned about, some of them did need to go down to the hospital in the south because they required additional medical attention, but the vast majority of them could have stayed and fulfilled the practices that are so ingrained in their culture, and you really touched on this point in your post very well. Good job!

  4. Hi Lindsey!

    I really like how you stated that it is almost frowned upon if individuals decide that they want to do a home birth instead of at the hospital. It is interesting that some doctors and physicians think that this very natural process could be very risky and dangerous. One of my friends from high school has a daughter that is two years old, and she explained to me that she often gets criticized from doctors and physicians because she is still breastfeeding her daughter. My friend gets very upset by this and tries finding a new doctor. I think it is very disrespectful and sad that the doctors and physicians criticize her for something that she feels she is doing right. It is also very upsetting that these things happen to patient’s everyday! Some doctors and physicians don’t build the relationship and bond that is needed to satisfy and help treat a patient. Although, there are many great benefits to the biomedical system, there are also many disadvantages. Just how you mentioned that you would have not been born if it weren’t for the biomedical system, and the cesarean section that had to be performed on your mom. Everything is not perfect, but we need to continue to work on making it better.


  5. I agree it is interesting how the sex of the baby is so influential to the preparation and treatment of the birth. I am not sure if that is just the patriarchal nature of many traditional family types or if it is just basic sexism disguised by naming the male as the head of household. It does seem a little backwards for it to matter so much especially before a child is even born.
    I also agree with you that we need to consider ethnic consequences to culture and mindset before applying an end-all, be-all rule. However, maybe there could be a way to help future birthing processes go smoother without encroaching on their culture. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking!

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