Scholarly writing usually benefits from being concise, and with academic books, shorter is often better. In the case of Marika Seigel’s book, though, short is often too short. While I greatly appreciated her discussion of what she calls pregnancy “manuals” and how they support dominant discourses about expectant mothers and their unborn babies, I was often disappointed by the lack of detail and the limited number of quotes and examples from her chosen texts. These include early 20th century brochures, books from the 1960s, the well-known What to Expect When You’re Expecting and an example of a popular pregnancy advice website. Seigel argues that pregnancy texts are pervaded by a medical perspective that sees pregnancy as a potentially risky experience requiring expert attention. This perspective, backed up by advances in medical technologies, privileges the unborn baby’s health over that of the mother. It tends to see the pregnant woman as a body to be made docile to avert risks to the fetus. Only one text that Seigel considers takes a different stance and explicitly values women’s experiential knowledge.
Seigel writes in a style that is both convincing and appealing, and I felt myself inclined to agree with all of her claims. And yet, despite or perhaps because of the author’s assured voice shining through every line, I wanted more textual evidence and a more in-depth discussion of her claims.
The author’s personal perspective is strongly present throughout. Noticeably, the book begins and ends with accounts of Seigel’s own birth experiences that do not disguise her qualms about the antenatal care she received. Her unease with the way medical and technological practices took precedence over her wish for a more natural birth echo throughout. Her key argument is that popular pregnancy texts promote a compliant reader rather than a critical knowledge-seeker. While she acknowledges that contemporary pregnancy websites offer space for women’s own knowledge to be discussed, she also notes the strong commercial presence on these sites.
Seigel’s choice of label for the texts she examines invites specific associations: when we read technical manuals, we start from the assumption of our own lack of understanding. We look for instructions of the kind we are happy to follow to get our laptop running and have no interest in questioning the advice given. But do the authors of pregnancy books really think of their texts in this way? And what do the women reading such books make of them? Do they see them as manuals providing instructions that they are compelled to follow? Of course Seigel’s book is not based on a study of reader reception, nor does it claim to be so. Yet this has not stopped her from making assumptions about the readers of pregnancy books, for example that they are passive and do not compare different pieces of information. Seigel insinuates that if women accept medical advice unquestioningly, they do not act in their best interests, but instead allow doctors to make decisions affecting their own and their babies’ lives.
But why wouldn’t women have good reasons to trust their doctors? Seigel has a point when she argues that antenatal care does not offer the same quality of service to all women, but overall, in most countries, the development of systematic antenatal care has greatly improved maternal and infant health. I missed seeing in her book a more reflective discussion of her own stance and how it might have made some of her readings of her chosen texts more likely than others.
The Rhetoric of Pregnancy
By Marika Seigel
University of Chicago Press, 200pp, £24.50
ISBN 9780226071916 and 72074 (e-book)
Published 31 January 2014
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