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Negotiating risky bodies: childbirth and constructions of risk

WithRachelle Joy Chadwick a, Don Foster b

Policy makers, practitioners and researchers have identified risk as a key concept in relation to maternity care and childbirth. There is however a lack of research exploring women’s discursive constructions of risk and childbirth in relation to sociological risk theories. In this article we explore pregnant women’s everyday negotiations of risk in relation to the self-chosen plan to birth either at home or via an elective Caesarean section. We use sociocultural risk theories to contextualise our findings. This article draws on data from a study conducted in 2005–2006 in which we interviewed 24 pregnant middle-class South African women who were planning a home birth or elective Caesarean section and used social constructionist discourse analysis to analyse the data. We found that women’s risk constructions were related to three different conceptions of birthing embodiment: technocratic bodies, vulnerable bodies and knowing bodies. Women who planned Caesarean sections were committed to biomedical constructions of risk and birth. Woman who planned home births shifted between endorsing and subverting biomedical models of risk. They also resisted definitions of birthing bodies as inherently abject (unclean, polluting, unruly) and constructed the process of giving birth as risky in medicalised settings. In such settings, the birthing body was constructed as vulnerable to objectification, loss of dignity and shaming. Women who planned to give birth at home constructed an alternative approach to birth which emphasised embodied ways of knowing, relational connection and empowerment over normative and medicalised risk constructions. In the process, biomedical risk definitions were destabilised.