Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



In this project, I use a rhetorical-cultural approach to examine the multiple and often-contradictory messages circulating in contemporary American culture about the event of childbirth. Though many feminist scholars have shown how professional obstetrics’ view of physiological birth shapes medical practice and women’s experiences in hospitals, few have asked what the American public is learning about birth outside of the hospital, or why that knowledge might matter. In order to fill that gap, I trace a dominant narrative that positions institutionalized biomedical knowledge and technology as the exclusive producers of health and safety for birthing women and their babies in popular film and television, in the making of medical research and policy, and in the way the insurance industry frames women as consumers or recipients. I argue that it is not just in the delivery room that this ideology gets communicated, nor are birthing women the only ones affected by its messages. Rather, my analysis illustrates how this narrative has seeped into the fabric of how American society as a whole understands and engages with medicine, women’s bodies, and science. In the final chapter, in order to explore a growing resistance to this ideology, I turn to the discursive construction of birth in online media. Read alongside the mainstream narrative, the rhetoric in these online spaces illustrates how the stakes of this debate are not just about who gets to decide where and how women should have their babies, but ultimately over who gets to interpret and apply science. The battle over birth in this country is, as this dissertation shows, also a battle over the public’s understanding of institutionalized medicine’s exclusive claims to scientific knowledge. By exposing the ways that narratives about and within that system function to sustain it, and illuminating the ways that the organizing power of new media is generating resistance to that system, this project seeks to intervene in conversations about the cultural meanings of childbirth, about meaningful and ethical health care, and, ultimately, about the production and circulation of knowledge about science, medicine, and women’s bodies.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

Weinstein, Susan D.