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CROSSCULTURAL THEORIES OF CONCEPTION, GESTATION, AND THE NEWBORN:
THE ACHIEVEMENT OF PERSONHOOD
Prepared for the Third International Congress on Pre and Perinatal Psychology
San Francisco, California July 9-12, 1987
Brigitte Jordan, Ph.D.
Department of Anthropology, Michigan State University
Institute for Research on Learning, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center
Last Changes: 08/30/1987
A caveat: This is the text, pretty much unedited, of a talk I gave at the conference cited above. I am deeply indebted to Lynn M. Morgan for insights gained from her writings which have substantially shaped, often in unacknowledged ways, what I have to say here.
3.0. FROM EFN TO PERSON: A CAREER
3.1. AN EXTENDED EXAMPLE; CONCEPTION, GESTATION AND THE NEWBORN AMONG AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINES
4.0. AGENCY: WHO MAKES THE BABY?
4.1. AN EXTENDED EXAMPLE: THE MALE WOMB
CROSSCULTURAL THEORIES OF CONCEPTION, GESTATION, AND THE
THE ACHIEVEMENT OF PERSONHOOD
Last Changes: 08/30/1987
I want to thank you very much for inviting me to your conference. As a longtime student of myths and ideology I always feel particularly privileged when I have an opportunity to witness a mythology-in-the-making -- I am not saying that in any ironic sense. I am fully aware, as I expect are you, that myths are powerful indeed.
We want to remember, however, that the notion of a myth is an outsider’s notion, an analyst’s way of conceptualizing what from the point of view of the producers of these myths are simply accounts of the world, accounts of the way things are. So what is a myth to you may be gospel to me, and what is a myth to me, may be considered scientific truth by you.
What I want to do today is to take a look at the kinds of accounts people in other cultures have constructed about the nature of the fetus and baby. This touches on a set of issues that have been central, in one form or another, for a number of speakers in this conference. The central question
that many of us are trying to understand is: what sort of a thing, what sort of an entity, a fetus or baby is.
And we here, today, are, of course, not alone in this quest. People all over the world and throughout history have had ideas about what makes the fetus human and, even more importantly, what makes it a person -- that is to say, a human being with a full complement of rights and obligations within her or his family and community. Examining some of the crosscultural and historical variation in these explanations may give us some resources for assessing our own constructions, our own myths. In particular, we may want to give some considerable thought to the question of what kind of "work" such accounts do, that is to say, in what ways they make visible societal notions about the relative value of girl and boy children, of women and men; how they display and reinforce ethnic and gender stratification; how they illuminate the political economy and how they highlight cultural divisions of the life cycle, attitudes toward death, the social organization of descent and inheritance and, indeed, how they function to justify the .distribution of power and authority in society.
Basic to my argument is the idea that neither the category ‘human being’ nor the category ‘person’ exists in the natural world; rather, these are cultural constructs intended to include certain objects and not others, and which objects they include and exclude varies from society to society and from one historical period to the next. I would suggest then that babies (immature human beings for which we have every expectation that they will develop into a fully functioning member of the society) are not so much born as made, that they are not natural products but cultural constructions.
Let us begin by realizing that the biological processes of conception, gestation and parturition result simply in a biological product, a new organism, a package of skin and bone and muscle and blood. All societies are faced with the task of transforming this biological product into a cultural entity, that is to say, into a human being who can become a full member of the society into which it is born. I myself find it useful to think of the biological products of conception, the embryo/fetus/neonate (EFN), as a candidate-baby. Many things may happen to the EFN: it may be miscarried, aborted, still-born or killed by natural cause or human agency at any stage of its development -- and statistically, many of them are. Alternatively, the EFN may undergo a transformation - it may be accepted into a social community and labeled a person, it may be claimed by a woman, a family, as a “baby, a thing to be treasured and cherished, for which people are willing to give up the sleep of their nights, the exclusive intimacy of conjugal relationships, the security of their bank account or yam store (as the case may be) -- at any rate, a most remarkable event. Now what is interesting is that there is no universal agreement about when, that is to say at what point in the development of the EFN, it should be transformed into a baby. In some societies people think of the conceptus as a human baby very early, but in most this doesn’t happen until birth and ~for some not until much later. Furthermore, which EFNs get claimed as babies is culturally determined and varies widely. What is a witch baby or a monster in one place, may be a perfectly good baby in another.
It is this kind of crosscultural variation in the achievement of personhood that I want to explore in the next few minutes by looking at historical and crosscultural theories of conception and gestation.
In order to be granted personhood, the fetus or newborn must first be recognized as human, as a member of the human species. This is a necessary though not sufficient precondition for achieving personhood in all societies. As Lynn Morgan has pointed out, to be recognized as “human” does not imply any social, moral, or judicial status. In contrast a “person” (or a baby) is a being who occupies a moral status which supersedes biology.
We, in this society, are imbued with a strong biological determinism. We believe that the offspring of humans is always human. (Though I do want to point out that the vast majority also believe in at least one exception, that is, the birth of Jesus Christ from human parents.) In other societies, the human status of the product of a human pregnancy is much more negotiable. Most frequently, the determination of whether the EFN is human or not occurs at birth when its physical attributes can be assessed. Among the Bariba of Benin, for example, one question that arises at every birth is whether a human or a witch baby has been born.
You recognize a witch baby by a number of signs: physical deformities, being born with teeth, sliding out on its face, and the like. Witch babies must be eliminated in order to safeguard the welfare of the community. Interestingly, Bariba women prefer to give birth alone and there is great praise of the woman who actually manages to deliver without attendants. Her courage and performance are explicitly likened to those of warriors, and just as it is considered the duty of men to defend the community against external enemies, so is it the duty of women to defend the community against witches growing up in its midst (Sargent 1989).
Given that we don’t believe in witches and witch babies (at least most of us don’t), it’s easy for me to argue that this category is culturally constructed, that witch babies are made by the society. It may also be comparatively easy to see that this construct participates in a discourse of equality between the sexes, in which parallel spheres for the competencies of women and men were laid out.
Other examples of non-human offspring abound: the natives of Central Australia consider a miscarriage to represent the young of some animal, such as a dog or a kangaroo7 which mistakenly entered the mother (Montague 1974, Hamilton 1981). Also, deformed babies are not considered human. They are called rubbish babies and are simply smothered.
In Thailand (as cited by Morgan) women tell stories of giving birth to gold, jewels, a monkey, a fish stomach and a mouse-like ‘golden child’ (cites Cornell Thailand project, 1963). On Truk, abnormal or deformed infants are labeled as ghosts and destroyed (Gladwin and Sarason 1953). I would suggest then that a human mother does not automatically guarantee a human child (Lake) but rather that even the human status of the EFN is culturally constructed.
Why should anybody care about the classification of products of conception? Why should we care whether something is seen as human or not, as a person or as a non-person? One answer, as I have indicated, has to do with what that tells us about the distribution of power and authority in society. The other is that such classifications are directly implicated in survival. This sort of classificatory work, establishing who is in and who is out, who is to be cherished and who is to be discarded, is of course not confined to EFNs. As Morgan has pointed out, historically personhood has been denied to certain groups of humans in western societies, including women, children, slaves, prisoners of war, lepers, countless subordinate ethnic groups, and the insane. The latest entry in this list are PWAs (persons with AIDS). Sometimes these categorizations are in a state of flux and not entirely consistent. For example, Blacks during the Civil War era were not fully human for purposes of “inalienable rights”, nevertheless “the negro was very much a man (sic) when it came to such matters as understanding orders, performing work, and, as the presence of the mulatto testified, helping to procreate the human species.”
3.0. FROM EFN TO PERSON: A CAREER
Unfortunately we lack extensive data about how different peoples think about the growth of the fetus. The early stages are quite often thought of as “coagulated blood,” a nondescript lump of tissue, blood and fluid, that only slowly takes on shape. One belief that is crossculturally common and for which I’ve never seen a good explanation is the idea that the fetus alternates between soft and hard states, so that survival of a 7th month fetus (which is hard) is thought to be more common than that of an 8 month fetus.
For some~ societies we have descriptions of elaborate developmental schemes: Rubel et al., for example, report that natives of the Philippines believe that conception occurs with two acts of intercourse. During the first month after conception, the fetus is a “beginning-of-a-child,” although it is not yet a person. It looks like a blood clot and lives in one of three rooms of the uterus, floating in water. It turns into a hard mass, something like the gizzard of a chicken. At the second month, the “beginning-of-a-child” lives in the second room of the womb. It is the size of a little finger and already possesses an umbilical cord, placenta, and a mouth. The arms and legs are not separated from the trunk of the body. The 3-months fetus is no longer thought of as the beginning of a child but as a child. By this time it is the size of an index finger. Arms and legs are separated from the trunk. The child is very soft, like the marrow of a bone. It now moves into the third room of the uterus where it remains for the duration of the pregnancy, becoming larger and differentiating its features. It is thought to lay its head on the placenta which is therefore called the birth pillow.
For rural Korea we have an excellent description of gestation beliefs by Dorothea Sich. The fetus is believed to be sitting on the placenta, legs crossed, sucking on the milk rope through which it gets its nourishment. This is an organ which is not identical with the umbilical cord. After birth, the milk rope attaches itself to the mother’s breasts from the inside which takes about two or three days. And that is why women don’t have milk in their breasts right after they give birth.
What many of these reports show is that attempts to ‘culture’ and ‘humanize’ the biological organism occur even before birth. People attempt to influence intrauterine development, be it by exposing the unborn child to beautiful sights and sounds, or through rules of appropriate behavior for mother and father during pregnancy.
While we believe that the baby attains full human status at least by the time of birth, in other societies the process of “culturing” extends into the newborn period. Newborns may be thought of as unripe, not fully human, with their “essence” still only loosely attached to their bodies -- a dangerous state which requires a series of precautions, rituals and claiming activities that continue the work of humanizing the child. The success of these efforts is often announced to the community in naming ceremonies and other coming-out celebrations which sometimes do not take place until the baby is several months old.
It is useful to differentiate between biological and social birth and birth rites. Though they tend to coincide in the US, they may be widely separated in other countries. In many societies people observe a period of transitional, liminal time between biological birth -- when the infant can be inspected and evaluated -- and social birth, when it is formally accepted into the community. Audrey Richards for example describes an African tribe where the newly born baby is considered ‘unripe’ and thought to be in a specially precarious position until it has been ‘taken’ by its parents in an act of intercourse and the lighting of a new fire when it is a few months old.
Social birth may be the occasion for some symbolically important event such as naming, hair cutting, depilation, ear piercing, removing incisor teeth, circumcision, or formal presentation of the infant to the ancestors. It can be a one-time event or may be a gradual process involving a number of socially significant milestones like smiling, or weaning, or learning to perform certain chores.
Burial data are good indicators of differential status since only persons are buried (while humans who have lost or have never attained that status may be interred). Unbaptized babies, for example, used to be buried with a simple cross outside of cemetery walls, indicating their status as unredeemed souls. In the US, any fetus below 500g is not buried which means, of course, that parents also do not have the right to grieve at the graveside, on a public occasion.
In some societies there are explicit rules regarding what kind of grief one is entitled to engage in, depending on the stage of development of the EFN. In one of the Andean communities where one of my students worked, if a miscarriage occurs, nobody is supposed to show any reaction. If there is a still-birth, the mother may show grief within the confines of the family but there is no official burial. If a newborn dies, the family may mourn it but nobody else. It will be buried without any ceremony. But if a child dies that has gone through the haircutting ceremony (at age 3 or so) there will be a funeral in which the whole community participates. Clearly, the transition to personhood has happened for this child.
3.1. AN EXTENDED EXAMPLE: CONCEPTION, GESTATION, AND THE
NEWBORN AMONG AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINES
Rather than giving you an around-the-world compilation of conception, gestation and the eventual construction of a human child, I want to discuss one particular people’s views in greater detail, namely those of the Anbarra, an Australian aborigine group of North Central Arnhem Land (Hamilton 1981). I have chosen this one because it provides the greatest possible contrast with the western biomedical way of looking at these issues but also, I believe, resonates with much of what has been said at this conference earlier.
For Australian aborigines all living beings participate in a never-ending cycling through various states of existence. One of these is called “the dreaming.” This is where the spirits of all living things exist, including the spirits of humans.
The supply of spirit children in the dreaming is endless. Their appearance in the world is dependent on their own whim. Ultimately there is little one can do to coerce them or to avoid them, though it is known that they are particularly abundant at certain springs and women might not go there, especially if they are menstruating, in order not to be chosen by a spirit child. In general, children are simply accepted as a segment in the immutable cycle of life, the human link between the present and the dreaming.
Now how does a woman become pregnant? The Anbarra believe that stomach and uterus are connected to each other and that each is connected to the outside, the stomach through the mouth and the uterus through the vagina. Consequently you can get pregnant either way: a spirit child may enter through the mouth if you eat something in which it is hiding or through the vagina -- no, not through intercourse, more likely when the woman squats in a place where spirit children are lurking. But you can already see that there is little hope of escaping from a determined spirit child. It may just change into a fish and put itself into the path of your husband’s spear. He’ll bring it home to you, you have it for lunch and that’s that. (Incidentally, because babies can enter through the mouth there is a taboo on strong foods and talking during first menstruation.)
How do you know that you have been chosen by a spirit child? Your husband dreams it and announces his dream not only to his wife but to the community as well.
You will ask, don’t they know abut the role of sexual intercourse in making babies? Yes, they do, but they just don’t focus on it the same way we do. Let me try to construct a parallel example. We know that you can’t make a baby if the mother is severely malnourished. But we don’t focus on that in our explanations because women who get pregnant are not malnourished to that degree, so we wouldn’t list food as a prerequisite because that is understood. For the aborigines, sex is a commonplace occurrence, a part of daily life early on, since girls begin to live with their husbands even before puberty. So the normal sequence of events is: intercourse, menarche, pregnancy. For them the crucial event that signals that a young woman can get pregnant is first menstruation (not sex). They pretty much ignore the role of the male in conception. One could say that in their conceptual system, sex and procreation ~are maximally separated. Sex is about passion and affection, about the expression of a particular relationship between a man and a woman; it has nothing to do with pregnancy which is the result of a deliberate choice on the part of the child.
In our conceptual system, birth is the major event which transforms the candidate-baby into a real baby. This transition happens in a much more muted way for Australian. aborigines., There is much continuity between the baby in the womb and the baby outside of the womb: they are referred to by the same term; they are thought of as resting within a container, the womb before birth, a paperbark cradle afterwards; breastfeeding is thought to be similar to the child feeding on the inside; and the breast/mouth connection is expressly likened to the connection through the umbilical cord.
Newborn aborigine babies are paler than older children and adults; they haven’t yet acquired the proper human color and this indicates that they are in a precarious state and must mature before they can be treated like “babies.” For the first few weeks, they are carefully carried in a bark cradle; consequently there is little skin-to-skin contact and no cuddling in mother’s arms. Nursing is done by propping the cradle on the mother’s lap with mother leaning over and popping the breast into the baby’s mouth.
A major transition occurs when the baby becomes a social being, that is, when it begins to smile in response to social stimuli somewhere between 3 and 6 weeks old. At that time the cradle is discarded and from then on the baby is handled a lot, by its mother, relatives, siblings and others. From then on there is much body contact with the baby usually held on the hip or high against the shoulder in an upright position. The mother takes her baby with her wherever she goes. Thus the baby is always exposed to the sights and. sounds of camp life and receives substantially more sensory stimulation than European or American babies. During the day, they are not likely to sleep more than one hour at a time.
There are no feeding routines. Nursing happens at any time. Babies under 2 months are fed every 35 minutes on the average, between 2 and 6 months, every 1 1/2 hrs. So the baby does not experience hunger. After about 9 months, nursing is vigorously initiated by the child. Passive and sick children receive less breast milk because parents believe that the baby will make its needs and desires known. Note the parallels with conception beliefs. The child is the active agent, as spirit or as human child. If a child is hungry, it will ask, cry, beg. They fail to feed a child that does not demand. Notice that their ideas about activity of the child are paralleled by their ideas about activity of the fetus. Both are active and will do for themselves, will demand, and adults have to acquiesce.
At the same time, Anbarra babies and children are treated with generosity; they are always given what they ask for, and the expectation is that they will develop into generous adults. As Annette Hamilton points out, cultural expectations about the nature of the child thus produces fundamentally different experiences: The Anbarra baby is fed constantly. It is never hungry. A child is never refused food by adults. As adults, the Anbarra eat all the time, whenever food is available. They are generous and sharing.
European and American babies by contrast are often fed at predetermined intervals. They experience constant cycles ‘of hunger and satiation. As adults they eat regularly (the three ritual meals a day); they always worry about having enough; they are preoccupied with thrift, with stockpiling against a rainy day and with worry about the future.
4.0. AGENCY: WHO MAKES THE BABY?
So far we have been concerned with the question when in the EFNs development it is transformed into a human baby. And we have seen that in different cultures that happens at different times. Another one of the dimensions along which the constructions of different societies vary runs along the lines of who is the active agent. Who makes the baby? Who causes conception to occur, who makes it grow, who gives it its vital essences? You can imagine that if the accepted view is that the woman is primarily responsible for the generation of new life, that that probably indicates that women are honored and respected in society. You might also expect that where women’s status is low, that there would be cultural constructions that take away from them any agency and therefore any credit for producing a new member of the family, the community, and indeed the species. There are three possibly theories people may hold: that the mother makes the baby with the father’s contribution being negligible; that the father makes the baby with the mother’s contribution being negligible; that they both contribute equally; or, as we have seen to be true for the Australian aborigines, that neither has much to do with it. (Versions of this latter view are fairly common in areas with ancestor worship and reincarnation beliefs.) ‘
Crossculturally, the most common view is that both mother and father must contribute to conception and the growth of the fetus, particularly the idea that the body of the fetus is literally build up through the joint efforts of mother and father. The father contributes the white parts of the baby’s body through his semen (producing the skin, bones, intestines and so on) while the mother adds the red parts (generating muscle, blood, etc.) through her menstrual blood which therefore no longer flows during pregnancy.
On the other hand, there are societies, where the father is considered the sole responsible agent, with the mother providing merely the passive vessel in which the fetus grows. Scholars like Angus McLaren have pointed out that Aristotle subscribed to that notion, for example. Though he believed that both male and female produced what he called ‘sperma’, a kind of seminal fluid, he believed that the man’s fluid was qualitatively superior to the woman’s fluid which he thought was more passive. He likened making a baby to the process of making cheese, where inert milk is activated by rennet; just like that the active semen produces life from the passive menstrual fluid. He represented women as being little more than incubators. Beyond this, he claimed that semen always tried to produce the highest form of life, that is, the male; should it fail, the result was an imperfect product, the female.
Hippocrates and Galen adhered to a more egalitarian model of procreation. They subscribed to an equal contribution of fluids or seeds by man and woman and therefore insisted, incidentally, that both had to experience pleasure in the sexual act or pregnancy could not result. Nevertheless, the male seed was depicted even by Galenists as superior in having spiritual qualities lacking in the female.
As a matter of fact, it appears that well into the 17th century people thought that women and men contribute equally, i.e. through a mixing of semen, to the growth of a new being and that, since it was necessary for a man to be aroused and experience pleasure in order to ejaculate, that the same would be true for women. Women were thus seen not only as capable of sexual enjoyment, but also as active agents in search of sexual pleasure which, in turn, was seen as necessary for conception to occur.
This changed with the rise of experimental science, of microscopy, and of embryology. Microscopy revealed a world in miniature. What we get in the late 17th and early 18th centuries is a rise in “preformation” models, theories of conception that say that the eventual human being is already there, preformed, either in the ovum or in the sperm. The ovulists, those that favored the ovum (hypothesized but not seen until 1827 by von Baer) went as far as referring to the semen as “mere manure for the ovum.” Alexander Hamilton in 1781 and others declared that the child existed in the ovaries and was only excited into life by the ‘seminal worms.’ The animalculists argued that tiny microscopic beings (called homunculi) existed in the spermatozoa, which were supposedly actually discovered by Leeuwenhoek in 1677. The animalculists either denied the existence of the egg or argued that it only existed to provide nourishment for the tiny beings within the drop of semen. As in Aristotle’s original formulation the woman was again perceived as a little more than the passive recipients of the male gift.
The new (in the 17th century) embryological knowledge of the sperm and the egg -- the one active and the other purportedly passive -- led to new expectations or was employed to rationalize new expectations, of differing male and female sexual experiences. In the 18th century, French women were advised that in place of passion ‘complaisance, tranquility, silence, and secrecy are necessary for a prolific coition.’ By the mid-l9th century, medical opinion held that
“there can be no doubt that sexual feeling in the female is in the majority of cases in abeyance ... and even if raised (which in many instances it never can be)’ is very moderate compared with that of the male. As a general rule, a modest woman seldom desires any sexual gratification for herself. She submits to her husband, but only to please him and, but for the desire of maternity, would far rather be relieved from his attentions.”
The medical literature depicts a change form the sexually active woman of the 17th century to the passionless creature of the nineteenth in the new middle-class image of the respectable, asexual female. The notion of aggressive, female sexuality did not disappear but would henceforth be’ associated by medical men only with working-class women. Well into the 19th century, until 1854 to be exact, the Catholic Church held on to the concept of ‘ensoulment’ that held that vitality was present in the male only after forty days and in the female after eighty. This permitted women to claim that life was not present before quickening and that therefore the use of abortifacients was permissible. It was only with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception which declared Mary free from sins from the moment of conception (which implied that she (and all other human beings) must have been alive at conception) that the Catholic Church finally unequivocally condemned the termination of a pregnancy at any stage (McLareri).
4.1. AN EXTENDED EXAMPLE: THE MALE WOMB
These examples, I presume, show rather clearly that the ways in which conception and gestation are seen in a particular society at a particular time have very little to do with physiology and embryology and much with laying out the distribution of power and authority in society and specifically with specifying who should be in control of production and reproduction. I want to conclude with a final example from the Muslim population of rural Malaysia (Laderman) which is so extreme in its male orientation that it throws into high relief the social control function of reproductive belief systems.
Malays have no notion of jointly building up the child. One act of intercourse is considered sufficient for conception. But it has to happen on the appropriate day of the month, that having nothing to do with the woman’s cycle but rather with Islamic belief of “when the seed falls” which may happen on the first, second, third, 14th, 15th, 16th, 28th, 29th or 30th day of each month. (One can see this as one expression of how irrelevant the culture considers women to be). However, before conception takes place in the mother’s womb, the father has been pregnant for forty days. Thus the baby begins life not as a creation in the mother’s womb but in the father’s brain.
Malays believe that both men and women have something one might translate as animal nature and something much like what we would call rationality; but developed states of self-control and rationality are masculine qualities, while bodily emotions and hunger are associated with women. Since the baby is formed in the father’s brain, it receives rationality from a highly developed source. It then descends into his chest, the repository of emotions. Only after having partaken of and experienced the father’s rationality and emotions, does it descend into the penis through which it is thrust into its mother’s womb, where it finds a resting place like a seed in the nourishing earth. The sex of the baby is determined at the time of its conception in its father’s brain, but can be changed through the power of God.
After intercourse “on a day the seeds fall” the opening of the womb closes, glued shut by a mixture of seeds and reproductive fluids which will keep the menstrual blood from escaping each month during pregnancy and any further semen from entering during that time. At first the baby is only a mixture of liquids, but by the end of a month it has become a lump of blood.
The fetus is not the sole occupant of the womb, however. Its sibling, the placenta, develops during the second month. At first they almost touch, but as the baby grows it moves away from its placental brother. The umbilical cord develops as a result of this movement. The cord and placenta contribute in no way to the baby’s nourishment; neither does the menstrual blood which collects in the womb during pregnancy. This dirty blood, swallowed inadvertently by the child, colors its first feces black. Until the fifth month it grows solely by the will of God. After that, it begins to feed through a conduit running from its mother’s stomach to her uterus. At the same time, it begins to breathe. Air from the mother’s lungs enters the baby’s nose and mouth, goes to its lungs, and finally reaches the blood stream where it acts as the force that drives the blood. The baby is seen as a parasite contained in the woman’s body through which it makes its needs and desires felt. Food cravings, for example, are thought of as being initiated by the fetus.
There is a story which shows this active quality of the fetus while it demonstrates, at the same time, the low esteem in which women are held. The story goes like this:
“Long ago, a man grew an enormous jack fruit which he meant to present to the rajah (local ruler). On his way to the palace, he passed a pregnant woman who looked at the fruit with longing and begged a piece from him. Although he worried that the rajah might not accept an imperfect gift, he broke off a piece arid gave it to the woman to eat. When he reached the palace, the rajah was indeed offended by the defect in the fruit. “I gave it to the child in the woman’s womb” said the man in his defense “for it was the baby who requested it.” The rajah refused to believe him and ordered his men to bring the woman before him. He took his dagger and ripped open her belly. Inside sat the baby, chewing on a piece of jackfruit.” (Laderman 1983).
Theories of conception, gestation and the newborn open a window on the relative cultural importance of men and women, their connection to the supernatural, their understandings of how the body works, and, indeed, on people’s notions of what constitutes humanity and personhood. As Robbie Davis-Floyd has argued so convincingly, pregnancy and birth are times when messages about basic societal values are conveyed with unparalleled force. This is why I believe we need to become aware of our own participation in the construction of those messages and in the construction of the images and accounts of birth.
I cited you the example of the Malays who, by cultural fiat, assign the procreative role to men. This strikes us as exotic and extreme but the downplaying of the role of women in reproduction occurs to varying degrees all over the world. And it is always political business that gets done with that, where I mean by political simply that it has to do with the distribution of power and authority in society.
It is in this context that we might want to look at some of the constructions in which we, during this conference, have participated as well in fantasy constructions about the ideal birth, in an ideal place, in the company of beautiful flowers and congenial animals and important people, a fantasy in which the mother is never mentioned. Well, it was a fantasy. But we all know that fantasies, in particular public fantasies, shared fantasies, are powerful. They define what constitutes legitimate discourse, in this instance a discourse about being born in which there is no place for the woman. We look at beautiful slides of the birth experience, and there is no mother. There is, at best, an abstract representation of her womb, full of octopuses, snakes, rats, piercing spikes, and other instruments of torture. If anthropology teaches us anything it is that these images are not natural. They are not out there in the world. They are produced and reproduced in the service of a particular version of reality. Why is it that this society has produced so few images like those of Judy Chicago? of women powerfully, ecstatically, painfully, lovingly giving birth to their infants, wanted and unwanted, conceived in sorrow and in joy, in misery, in ignorance and bliss. How is it that we can ignore the stark physiological reality that it is women that give birth to babies?
I leave you with a poem by Joy Harjo called “The Woman Hanging from the 13th Floor Window” which was given to me by Arisika Razak.