I’m at that point in my life when I open up Facebook and watch my newsfeed fill with pictures of my friends’ pregnancies — the iconic ultrasound photo, the week-by-week progress photos, and the constant updates on doctor visits and medical issues. And I’ve seen how, as the months unfold, friends turn to special diets, daily monitoring, and weeks of bedrest in order to mitigate these medical concerns.
But what happens to our agency when the pregnant body is defined as “risky”? When women’s bodies require extensive monitoring and treatment? Marika Seigel, associate professor of rhetoric and technical communication at Michigan Technical University, claims that “the technological system of prenatal care is in need of change both to facilitate access and to ensure that it is centered on the needs of all of its users.” Framed by a personal account of her two radically different childbirth experiences, one in which she had little control over decisions regarding her pregnancy and the other in which she gained control over her birthing experience, Seigel’s The Rhetoric of Pregnancy, a critical book-length study of the rhetoric surrounding pregnancy, interrogates the medical system that has transformed pregnancy into a solely medical event equipped with machines and procedures. Seigel’s investigation of pregnancy manuals that perpetuate “functional rather than critical access” highlights the ways in which our current medical system does not allow women choice before, during, and after pregnancy. By the end of The Rhetoric of Pregnancy, Seigel has provided an alternative: for women to create pregnancy manuals that question the system and to engage and disengage based on free will rather than being obliged to simply follow the instructions.
Through a historical tracing of who has power over and knowledge of pregnancy, including the societal shift from focusing on the woman to primarily the fetus, Seigel examines the emergence of the pregnancy manual. Seigel begins by discussing the formation of prenatal care in the 20th century, and the idea that pregnant bodies need to be disciplined through strict diet and self-control and that the fetus is separate from (yet reliant on) the mother. She narrates a detailed history of how the Women’s Municipal League in Boston, beginning in 1909, provided prenatal care individualized to the expectant mother’s home and specialized situations. This kind of care then turned to the idea of “fit citizens,” (typically developing babies), which was (and in some ways, still is) purported by pregnancy manuals, from Johnson and Johnson’s Every Child Has the Right to Be Well Born (1927) to William Birch’s A Doctor Discusses Pregnancy (1966), both of which maintain the medical system surrounding pregnancy. Seigel does provide alternate system-disrupting “manuals” as well, such as Our Bodies, Ourselves (Boston Women’s Health Collective, 1973), in which the authors sought to disrupt the system by providing options and alternative information instead of telling the expectant mother to follow any predetermined mandates during pregnancy.
More importantly, after introducing the history of pregnancy manuals, Seigel focuses on how these manuals do not (or only marginally) allow pregnant women access to engage or disengage with a medical system that, through defining the social conventions of being a “good” mother, requires us to become a part of it. By showing alternative ways to negotiate the medical system and utilize other practices, such as the use of at-home care, midwives, and doulas, The Rhetoric of Pregnancy attempts to open up possibilities to potentially pregnant and pregnant women beyond the manuals and how-to guides we pick up at our local bookstore that may simply maintain the system rather than denormalize it. Due to the lack of system-disrupting documents related to pregnancy, Seigel calls on writers to create manuals that empower readers to make informed decisions about their own bodies.
As I have watched a friend struggle with insurance policies that forcefully tried to deny her access to a midwife and a birthing center and watched other friends deal with the aftermath of painful procedures during pregnancy and childbirth, I have witnessed their frustration with this system that assumes the user already wants to fully engage with it, without questioning. The Rhetoric of Pregnancy advocates academic discourse that calls for social action, for women to produce and share knowledge about their own bodies and experiences.