Midwifery as Feminist Praxis in Aotearoa/New Zealand
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
This thesis highlights the ways in which the practices of contemporary midwives in Aotearoa/New Zealand are caught within the intersection of an array of competing discourses. The context for this is the reconstruction of midwifery in Aotearoa/New Zealand as an autonomous feminist profession founded on partnership with women. Interviews and participant observation with midwives, based mainly in one New Zealand city, are the basis of an analysis of the complexity of midwives’ praxis as professionals. The analysis draws on insights from critical and feminist approaches to Foucault’s theories of discourse, power and the subject. It includes discussion of the conditions which came to produce and authorise the concept of ‘partnership’. Which subjects can speak about partnership, and when? What claims are made about it? What challenges it? Partnerships between midwives and women are theorized in the thesis as highly complex and contingent networks of strategic and productive relations. Differing sites of practice/negotiations are analysed as spaces of/for governance. For midwives this negotiative work takes place within the contested terrain of what is (re)constructed as ‘normal birth’. This includes the provision of, or resistance to, epidural analgesia/certification and defensive practice. These practices and knowledges are undertaken within professional discourses of women’s/consumer choice and midwifery accountability. While midwifery’s theoretical and emancipatory political projects are articulated as a counter discourse to medical hegemony, some midwifery practices inadvertently re-inscribe pregnant/birthing bodies within medicolegal frameworks. This is an outcome, not of the sovereign power of obstetrics over women/midwives, but of attempts by midwives themselves to negotiate heterogeneous forms of risk and keep birthing women, and their own practices, safe. Within these relationships and practices of freedom, the midwife performs professionally to construct herself as what I call an ‘auditable subject’. These processes produce self-regulation and the disciplinary normalisation of midwives/midwifery. The technologies of the midwife/self occur within the relations of ruling that render the pregnant/birthing bodies of women, and the labouring bodies of midwives, increasingly amenable to subtle forms of liberal governance.