Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Anthropology of Reproductive Health: Part 1

This semester I am taking a fabulous anthropology course on reproductive health. (I actually told my class that I have this blog, so if you are my classmate, hello!) I am enjoying this class more than any other class I've taken so far in graduate school - the discussions each week are excellent and I want them to continue all day, the reading assignments are fascinating and I enjoy every one, and the overall class theme is issues related to sexual and reproductive health from a multi-disciplinary approach! With topics like state control/social control, pregnancy/prenatal care, childbirth/breastfeeding, abortion, infertility, STI's, and circumcision, what's not to love?

So, I thought I'd list the articles we've been reading so that you can read them, too, if interested. My professor has compiled an excellent reading list, and I hope she doesn't mind that I'm sharing them here. I will do this in parts, so as not to overwhelm anyone interested in seeing the full list, and I am including some notable quotes from some of the articles to give you an idea of what I found most interesting about them.

The first day we talked about Reproductive Health and Human Rights, for which we read the articles listed below.

Palestinian Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights in a Longstanding Humanitarian Crisis (Bosmans, M., D. Nasser, U. Khammash, P. Claeys, and M. Temmermane 2008)
"...the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is seriously affecting the sexual and reproductive rights of both refugee and non-refugee women in the West Bank and Gaza."
"Two international organizations mentioned keeping records of deliveries, still-births and cases of women dying during delivery at the military checkpoints because they were denied passage to reach the hospital."
"A woman's contribution to national development and survival is mainly understood in terms of her reproductive role, and persistent gender inequalities prevent her from using contraception."
Sex trafficking, sexual risk, sexually transmitted infection and reproductive health among female sex workers in Thailand (Decker, M. R., H. L. McCauley, et al. 2011)

‘Other Inhuman Acts': Forced Marriage, Girl Soldiers, and the Special Court for Sierra Leone (Park, A.J. 2006) 
"Girls should not be subsumed under the category 'women' or 'children', but require specific attention."
Advancing Transgender Family Rights through Science: A Proposal for an Alternative Framework (Sabatello, M 2011) 
"As not 'truly' man or woman, their right to marry was extremely curtailed. As not 'naturally' mother or father, their right to found a family could not reach the legal threshold for 'parenthood.'"
"While transgendered individuals were offered the advantage of scientific developments, exercising this option meant losing an array of other fundamental human rights."
Behind Closed Doors’: Debt-Bonded Sex Workers in Sihanoukville, Cambodia (Sandy, L. 2009) 

Our second class was devoted to the topic of Anthropology and Reproduction:

Anthropology theorizes reproduction: Integrating practice, political economic, and feminist perspectives. Greenhalgh, S. (1995) 

“Life Begins When They Steal Your Bicycle”: Cross-Cultural Practices of Personhood at the Beginnings and Ends of Life. (Morgan, L. 2006) [my favorite article of this week!]
 "Feminist anthropologists have asked, for example, how 'fetal subjects' have come to acquire social currency, and who is able to assert of deny their moral significance."
"Wari' [people in western Amazonia] models of personhood emphasize bodies that are interconnected; each individual's body is constituted through the continual exchange and incorporation of body substances such as blood, semen, breast milk, and sweat. Furthermore, one's identity changes throughout one's life as one becomes more or less related to multiple others through the exchange (or not) of body substances. When Conklin asked the Wari' to explain how babies are made, tey told her that a newborn is built from the gradual accumulation and mixing of the father's semen and maternal blood over the course of pregnancy. If a father goes away for an extended period of time while his wife is pregnant, the baby will be born thin and weak because it was deprived of the semen it needed to make it strong. Conklin explained that for the Wari', this conceptualization implies that babies are always considered to be the product of a sustained relationship between a man and a woman...A Wari' pregnancy therefore can never be a mistake; a Wari' child can never be 'unwanted.'"
 "I fear that the concept of culture has sometimes come to function as what anthropologist James Ferguson called an 'anti-politics machine,' an ideological apparatus used to divert attention away from structural inequalities that might be harder to change, or the questioning of which would threaten to destabilize the political system."
"A focus on fetal citizens diverts attention from other challenges that pregnant women face and from other threats to fetal health."
"Nor will personhood be resolved in the embryology laboratory or in the courts, for personhood is destined to be played forever on the disputatious fields of social practice."
Liminal Biopolitics: Towards a Political Anthropology of the Umbilical Cord and the Placenta. Santoro, P. (2011).
"Preserving UCB [umbilical cord blood] is offered as a form of engaging with biomedical evolution and with the whole new generation of stem cell therapies that will surely be developed in the near future."
In early Modern Europe, "the placenta simply could not be neglected: the child's future career depended on it, because the child inevitably suffered form the repercussions of any misadventure on the part of his double."
"[The placenta] was tied to the branch of a tree and left there to dry, or cooked and eaten by the mother and maybe other people (the belief being that the placenta had miraculous powers of fertility)." 
"Among the Cherokee, the navel-string of a girl is buried under a corn-mortar, in order that the girl may grow up to  be a good baker; but the navel-string of a boy is hung up on a tree, in order that he may be a hunter... In ancient Mexico they used to give the navel-string to soldiers, to be buried by them on a field of battle, in order that the boy might thus acquire a passion for war."
"A negligent disposal could be the source of directly disastrous events: if one burned the placenta in the fire, it was possible that the mother would suffer from fevers and inflammation of the womb..." 
"The Santals of East India, for instance, do not refer to their birthplace, rather they refer to 'the village where my afterbirth is buried'"
Culture, Scarcity, and Maternal Thinking: Maternal Detachment and Infant Survival in a Brazilian Shantytown. Scheper-Hughes, N. (1998)
"Infant and childhood mortality in the Third World is a problem of political economy, not of medical technology." 
"Whenever we social and behavioral scientists involve ourselves in the study of women's lives - most especially thinking and behavior surrounding reproduction and maternity - we frequently come up against psychobiological theories of human nature that have been uncritically derived from assumptions and values implicit in the structure of the modern, Western, bourgeois family. Theories of innate maternal scripts such as 'bonding,' 'maternal thinking,' or 'maternal instincts' are both culture and history bound, the reflection of the very specific and very recent reproductive strategy: to give birth to few babies and invest heavily in each one."
Feminist Anthropology Anew: Motherhood and HIV/AIDS as Sites of Action. Downe, P. J. (2011)

Check back for more soon!


  1. I have met Lynn Morgan, who wrote the article about fetal personhood, and she is brilliant and amazing. I still think about her lectures about fetal personhood all the time. What an awesome class to be taking!!!

  2. Love it! I have taught the Scheper-Hughes piece to undergrads; it does blow the mind of the privileged first-world young citizen. I eagerly await more of your reading list!

  3. Thanks for sharing the idea there would be some apprehensions from segment but i am up for it.
    ivf cost Mexico


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