[Originally published on August 8, 2018 on the Association for Feminist Anthropology website]
Midwives and Mothers: The Medicalization of Childbirth on a Guatemalan Plantation, Sheila Cosminsky, University of Texas Press, 2016, 303 p.
Midwives and Mothers builds on Sheila Cosminsky’s decades-long involvement with midwives in Guatemala, where she has been conducting research since 1974. This thoroughly documented monograph provides a rich account of the changes and continuities in women’s reproductive care preferences and midwives’ practices in rural Guatemala. Cosminsky analyzes the shifting roles of midwives across generations by contrasting midwife Maria’s work in the 1970s to her daughter Siriaca’s, also a midwife on the coffee and sugar plantation where she grew up.
As indicated in the Acknowledgements, it is a feeling of urgency that led the author to publish this monograph, an urgency fueled by the ongoing criticism and attacks by biomedical personnel and international organizations towards traditional midwives’ knowledge and practices. The increased pressure to medicalize pregnancy and birth deeply impact women’s experiences and midwives’ practices, as described in the nine chapters of this monograph.
Each chapter contains rich ethnographic descriptions, details on international and national health policies, and theoretical analysis from the fields of medical anthropology, the anthropology of reproduction and midwifery studies. The first three chapters provide information on the context of the study: Chapter 1 introduces the reader to midwives’ role in Maya communities, Chapter 2 describes the Finca and María’s work, and Chapter 3 contrasts María and Siriaca’s practices and relations to their patients. The following three chapters dive deep into describing midwives’ work in prenatal care (Chapter 4), pregnancy (Chapter 5) and postpartum (Chapter 6), contrasting the changes between mother and daughter’s practices, and in the relations between midwives and health institutions. Chapter 7 focuses on the role of the midwife, whose scope of practices range far beyond pregnancy and birth, while Chapter 8 and 9 respectively interrogate national midwifery policies and one of their consequences, the medicalization of childbirth.
The changing role of midwives
Across Guatemala, midwives attend two third of births, a rate reaching 80 percent in rural areas. Cosminsky analyzes midwives’ daily practices in relation to various socio-political spheres, including local cultural norms, political relations between midwives and Finca owners, national midwifery training programs and international policies aiming at diminishing Guatemala’s high maternal mortality rates. This ethnography also highlights how, on their end, Maya women’s reproductive health decisions are made at the nexus of various structural factors, personal decisions, family preferences and public health messages.
Taken together, the chapters provide a large overview of midwives’ diverse scope of practices, from prenatal care, labor and delivery to infant care and family counselors, leading the author to describe these women as “doctors to the family.” While previous ethnographies on and with midwives in Mexico and Guatemala also describe the many roles midwives undertake (Berry 2010, Freyermuth 2003, Jordan 1993), Cosminsky devotes entire chapters to one or the other aspect of midwives’ work, providing a comprehensive description of midwives’ large scope of practice. The fruitful comparison of midwives-as-family-doctors grounds these women’s work in the everyday life of Maya men and women and provides a glimpse both at their material living conditions and the health challenges they face.
Cosminisky’s long-standing involvement with midwives appears through detailed ethnographic vignettes, providing an intimate view on the relations between midwives and their patients, as well as in the detailed list of diseases—ethnocultural and biomedical alike—these women cure. While I appreciate the level of detail provided by the vignettes, my work with the Organization of Indigenous Doctors of Chiapas (OMIECH)—at the forefront of political opposition to biopiracy in Southern Mexico—lead me to be wary of listing medicinal plants and recipes as they are presented in the Appendices. Debates on plant knowledge property are strong in both research and activist communities, and this monograph, published in English, is directed towards non-community members, raising concern on the use of such knowledge. Providing a translation of the Appendices and sharing it with community members might be one way of returning the knowledge to those who provided it, as OMIECH has done in Chiapas.
The medicalization of childbirth in Guatemala
Cosminsky’s ethnography is also a political analysis of the medicalization of childbirth in Guatemala, and the everyday consequences of midwifery training programs on midwives’ medical practices and women’s birth experiences. Descriptions of midwifery trainings highlight how international guidelines impact relations between medical staff and midwives, and change the way midwives manage birth. The author expresses concern for the continuous attacks on midwives’ practices by biomedical personnel. For example, midwives are not allowed to attend primiparous women, which restricts midwives’ scope of practices and can come into conflict with cultural expectations and women’s desires. Despite such regulations, women resist giving birth in hospitals, for fear of mistreatment and abuse – a fear shared by several women throughout the book.
The moral dilemmas Guatemalan midwives face, between biomedical recommendations and their empirical knowledge resonate with midwives’ situation across the world. The medicalization of reproductive health is of growing concern by scholars, activists and international organizations. This ethnography provides a case study of the rapid changes in midwives’ practices, and their far-reaching consequences not only for women but for entire communities. It is a valuable resource for teaching undergraduate and graduate courses alike, in Anthropology, Nursing and Midwifery, Latin American Studies and Public Health. The different chapters can be used separately or as a whole, providing an excellent example of ethnographic research and writing.
Berry, Nicole S. 2010 Unsafe Motherhood: Mayan Maternal Mortality and Subjectivity in Post-War Guatemala. Reprint edition. New York: Berghahn Books.
Freyermuth, Graciela 2003 Las mujeres de humo: morir en Chenalho : género, etnia y generación, factores constitutivos del riesgo durante la maternidad. México, D.F: CIESAS, INM, Comité por una Maternidad Voluntaria y sin Riesgos en Chiapas.
Jordan, Brigitte 1993 Birth in Four Cultures : A Crosscultural Investigation of Childbirth in Yucatan, Holland, Sweden, and the United States. 4th edition. Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland Pr Inc.