Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Barbara Katz Rothman's "The Biomedical Empire"

Barbara Katz Rothman is Professor of Sociology, at the City University of New York. She has served as President of Sociologists for Women in Society; the Society for the Study of Social Problems, and the Eastern Sociological Society. Her awards include the Jesse Bernard Award of the American Sociological Association, and an award for "Midwifing the Movement" from the Midwives Alliance of North America, and a distinguished Chair in Health Sciences from the Fulbright Association. She is the author of numerous books, including A Bun in the Oven: How the Food and Birth Movements Resist Industrialization (2016).

Katz Rothman applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Biomedical Empire: Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic, and reported the following:
Seriously? It had to be page 99? A whole book about Biomedical imperialism, and y’all had to pick the page where I am back to talking about what I’ve been saying for my whole career, from my dissertation onward?

So yeah, on Page 99 I am making the absolutely reasonable and true point that medicine as a profession, as an industry, as an imperial power colonized midwifery, taking knowledge, power and control over birth out of the hands of the women of the world, and claimed it as an exclusive medical arena. You can be – and midwives have been – arrested for ‘practicing medicine without a license’ for doing what they have done for cultural eternities and individual lifetimes. Feeling a baby move gently through a belly, saying ‘yes, you’re pregnant, feel that?’ can get you arrested. You don’t have the right to ‘diagnose’ a pregnancy. Let alone helping a woman push the baby out and bring it up to her arms. It’s a great example, yup, but dammit I did write about other things, I’m not totally stuck on that one issue, no, not me.

Take the medical innovation we are most indebted to right now in this gradually post-covid moment: vaccinations. People (‘milk maids’) knew that exposure to cowpox prevented smallpox and were doing that for each other. Jenner tried it out on a servant’s kid to confirm, gave it a Latin name (Vax for cow) and ta-da! Medicine gets credited with inventing vaccines. And anyone else who might want to try anything like that now – don’t. All the rights, to invent, to try, to implement – solidly in the hands of Biomedicine.

Biomedicine has the hallmarks of an imperial power – enormous economic power, governmentality or legal rule (medical folks need to sign off on birth certificates, yeah, but also death certificates; you’re not legally dead without one) and an almost religious power, something we ‘believe in.’

Colonizing was never only about the land – what to do with that coffee, that cotton, how to grow and harvest and use – that too was colonized. In our global world, it’s no longer about any given nation colonizing another, and it’s no longer about land alone. We need to think about and understand biomedicine as an imperial power, conquering the world. Like all Empires it does some good – those Romans built some great roads – but it most assuredly does what it does in its own interest, in the interest of growing and maintaining imperial power.

It’s not just about birth –but you’ll have to read the other 152 pages yourself.
Visit Barbara Katz Rothman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue