Does the Medicalization of Birth Harm Mothers?

In the 1910s and 20s, state governments passed a series of regulations aimed at medicalizing birth—steering birthing mothers to physicians’ practices instead of midwives.

“Medicalization of birth has saved a lot of lives,” says Dr. Lauren Hall, political science professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and the author of The Medicalization of Birth and Death, says in a new Institute for Humane Studies video. However, she says, the forced standardization of the birth experience through regulation has exposed women to unnecessary medical procedures and taken away their bodily autonomy.

You move mothers from room to room, you move them from place to place, you keep them on this assembly line in order to keep the hospital efficient. It becomes much less about what is this laboring woman need, and what is the hospital system need.

Dr. Lauren Hall

This over-medicalization results in cases like Rinat Dray. In 2011, Rinat Dray was giving birth to her third child and was adamant that she didn’t want a C-section. Despite the absence of clinical signs that anything was wrong, the doctor overrode her wishes.

Dr. Hall explains: “In her chart, her physician just wrote, ‘I’m overriding her refusal of a C-section.’ They tied her down, anesthetized her, and cut her open without her consent.” Rinat Dray later sued the hospital and lost her case.

Doctors who override mothers’ birthing wishes aren’t trying to hurt anyone, but doctors are incentivized to process women quickly.

Providers feel an enormous amount of pressure to push back against maternal preferences that slow down the system.

Dr. Lauren Hall

The Rinat Dray case and others like it reinforce the importance of informed consent, voluntary action, and bodily autonomy in a free society. Every individual should enjoy the security of knowing their choices will be respected whenever possible—especially at a crucial life moment like labor.

“The reality is that the US has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world,” says Dr. Hall. “And the reason for that is in part, the fact that we do so many interventions on women.”

For more videos featuring IHS faculty partners, visit the Institute for Humane Studies YouTube channel.

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