About this site

Welcome to my site. My friends and I created this to share some of my work and – more importantly – to invite an exchange of ideas.

I’ve been a sociologist for a long time, and ventured into a number of different fields over the years: birth and midwifery (which I still think of as my home base); the new genetics and reproductive technologies; medical sociology; bioethics; issues in disability; adoption; race; and now I’m exploring food studies too. Some of you might know my work in one of these areas, others in a different area. What would be really interesting would be to have people talk, with each other and with me, across areas. I’ve tried, with some success over the years, to talk to midwives about genetics; to encourage people who do new reproductive technologies to think about home birth; to have bioethicists pay more attention to what medical sociology can offer; to get people in Food Studies thinking about midwives and where midwifery issues overlap with their concerns. Those are invariably the most fun and stimulating conversations I’ve ever been a part of. Connecting people, connecting ideas, weaving the webs that pull us together – nothing could make me happier. So this site, a gift from friends, is my place to do this kind of weaving.

We’ve grouped my work by area – but please, if you’re here because you have gotten anything useful out of my work in one area, do poke around for a minute in another. Bring your insights and wisdom and experience to a new place, a new issue. Let’s see what we can weave together.

- Barbara Katz Rothman

Eastern Sociological Society

I am the President of the ESS, which is fast becoming a CUNY Sociology Professorial requirement!

The theme of the meeting and the first call for papers is below.

Please send your suggestions -- for thematic sessions or for mini-conferences -- to mydayjob2016@gmail.com

My Day Job: Politics and Pedagogy in Academia

For most of us, what we present at meetings like the ESS is our art, our life, our valued work.  And what we do to pay the mortgage, put shoes on the kids, get the money to go to meetings like this, is teach.

Some of us -- more and more of us -- are doing our teaching as piece work, course by course, and as in pre-union days, without any 'benefits.'  As courses move online, for some that work --like old style garment industry piecework -- is done in our homes, one corner of our living space used for production, providing our own supplies, laptops now rather than sewing machines. For others, luckier, teaching is done as a full time job with full benefits, from a solid college or university base, whether on-line, in person or both, doing our 10 community college courses a year, or our 6 or so undergraduate courses, or even just a lovely one or two doctoral courses, or whatever mix we've worked out for ourselves.  But that teaching, our day job, most often slips under the radar when we meet as professional sociologists.

At this meeting, we can and will talk about our interesting publications and our grant-funded research and all of that -- but let us also talk about our day jobs.  While papers will be welcomed in all areas of sociology, and mini-conferences will address a range of issues and concerns, the theme of the conference will be our day jobs.  What is happening to universities and colleges as America becomes ever-increasingly corporatized and privatized, as more and more of all work is outsourced, as students and their families become 'customers' and faculty are responsible for 'product'?  How are we managing, coping, and rising above all that?   How do we remain dedicated to our craft of teaching, our vocation of transmitting our sociological imagination?

On Surrogacy

The idea that a pregnant woman is not the mother of the baby in her belly infuriates me, and frightens me with its implications.  So when I saw Jeffrey Kirby's article "Transnational Gestational Surrogacy: Does it Have to be Exploitative?" scheduled for publication in the American Journal of Bioethics, I just had to respond.  It was published with the title "The Legacy of Patriarchy as Context for Surrogacy: or Why are we quibbling over this?" in AJOB, April 2014, Vol. 14, #5,  as one of their 'open peer review commentaries.' 

You can access a copy of the article here.

The other recent piece I have done on surrogacy is another book review. I reviewed Amrita Pande's WOMBS IN LABOR: TRANSNATIONAL COMMERCIAL SURROGACY IN INDIA. You can look at this one, and the older one on Teman's book listed below.

And if you really want a good, insightful, and deeply (and appropriately!) critical look at Indian surrogacy, see the just published DISCOUNTED LIFE: THE PRICE OF GLOBAL SURROGACY IN INDIA, just out from NYU press.

Thoughts on the state of Sociology

I've done two reviews for CONTEMPORARY SOCIOLOGY, the journal of book reviews published by the American Sociological Association, that seem to go together. They are both reviews of memoir-like compilations of work by two major senior figures in Sociology. It is rather odd, at this stage of things, to be the younger person reviewing the more senior, looking back at a life and a career. One of these was very hard to do: Peter Berger was one of the sociologists whose work shaped me, made me understand the world or maybe more accurately reflected back at me the way I was understanding the world and made that legitimate. Neil Smelser was more of a 'background' figure for me, someone whose work is clearly important in shaping Sociology, but not in shaping my sociology. All in all, reading these books has reinforced my decision never ever to write a memoir!

The Berger review can be found here, and the Smelser review here.

Panel Discussion on Tightrope: A Racial Journey

Gail Garfield was one of my 'progeny,' a dissertation I was very pleased to have chaired many years back.  Her most recent book is TIGHTROPE: A RACIAL JOURNEY TO THE AGE OF OBAMA.  More than autobiography, it's a fine example of 'autoethnography,' of applying the sociological imagination to one's own life.  She's my colleague at CUNY now, at John Jay College and they invited me to participate in a panel to celebrate the publication of the book.  I'm just a ten minute bit of this one hour panel, but listening to this may well make you run out and read the book!  So it's well worth posting for that.

Click here to watch the video.

Decision Traps and Haunting Images: Still thinking about Prenatal Testing

It’s coming up on thirty years since I published THE TENTATIVE PREGNANCY.  The technology’s changed in some ways. Information comes earlier.  And it’s routinized.  What used to be a problem facing relatively few pregnant women --  those who were over 35 or so, those who had a family history of a genetic disorder of some sort -- is now a problem facing every pregnancy in America.  Or so it would be if people faced the problem. 

Prenatal screening for conditions which have no solution but abortion is routine.  And routinely unacknowledged.  People do an ultrasound scan for the joy of ‘seeing the baby.’  But the ultrasounds weren’t introduced for fun, aren’t paid for by insurance companies for fun, aren’t done as routine medical care for fun.  Ultrasound, along with maternal blood tests, are being done to diagnose conditions in the fetus, and those conditions are not treatable.

Abortions following prenatal testing are nothing like abortions to get ‘unpregnant,’ abortions to just return oneself to normal after an accidental, unplanned and unwanted pregnancy.  These abortions, abortions because this particular fetus should not become one’s baby,  are experienced very differently.  In THE TENTATIVE PREGNANCY I showed how painful this was for the women involved, women who were told how lucky they were to have choices, but often experienced themselves as horrifically trapped.

Two new books cast interesting light on all this from two very different countries.  Germany recognizes the eugenic underpinnings of all prenatal screening.  While Americans assure me that this has nothing to do with eugenics, it’s just about having healthy babies, Germans have been forced by their history to recognize that having healthy babies, or being ‘well born,’ is what eugenics means.   Silja Samerski did a book on the DECISION TRAPS that people are facing when they have genetic testing.  She asked me to write a preface, and it’s available below.

Tine M. Gammeltoft, wrote HAUNTING IMAGES: A CULTURAL ACCOUNT OF SELECTIVE REPRODUCTION IN VIETNAM, and my review of that book is also available below. The Vietnamese are in an interesting position because while Americans and Germans too can see ‘fetal defects’ as acts of god, of random cruelty in the world, the Vietnamese see them as war crimes, the ongoing consequences of Agent Orange, and it shapes their discussion. 

Context shapes everything of course.  But pregnancy is also a context: the nature of pregnancy as an intimate social relationship shapes women’s experiences of prenatal testing and selective abortion that Americans, caught in an absurdly fraught discussion of abortion, cannot afford to see.  Until the trap is sprung. 

If you missed the link to my preface in DECISION TRAPS, click here.
To access my review of HAUNTING IMAGES, click here.

And Yet More on Risk

The Virtual International Day of the Midwife is this wonderful concept in which midwives and interested hangers-on all over the world can join together electronically. For 24 hours speaker after speaker presents work, takes comments and questions and thoughts on a live chat, and a world of midwifery is united. I was invited to present my work on "Risk" and the presentation was recorded. I encourage you to look through the program, see which presentations are of interest.

To go to the general home page, click here.
To see my presentation, click here.

More on Risk

The Midwives Alliance of North America just published its studies on 'statistical outcomes' of  Home Birth Outcomes of Care for 16,924 Planned Home Births in the United States: The Midwives Alliance of North America Statistics Project, 2004 to 2009“. in the Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health, and Lamaze International's blog 'Science and Sensibility' asked me to write something about home birth and risk.  The comments, no surprise, quickly veered off into stuff about selfish mothers risking their babies lives to have scented-candle-births, and people shouting statistics of risk at each other. 
Oh well.... 
If you missed the link to my piece in the above, click here.

Risky Business?

We live, it’s been said, in a ‘risk society,’ a phrase most associated in academia with the work of Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, but now pretty widely used by people who never heard of them. Of course life’s always been risky – and one could argue that in some ways people, at least the ones who are having public discussions of ‘risk,’ are as safe as people ever have been. I’ll leave it to others to explain why the swings are disappearing from the playgrounds, why kids can’t walk home three blocks by themselves, why it’s important, as I am constantly told by friends and family, that I know my risks and be tested for breast and a dozen other kinds of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Are those the things that make us less ‘at risk’? Is that really why we are safer? Or is there something else at work here?

And why can I not seem to discuss this issue without constantly asking rhetorical questions?

HEALTH, RISK AND SOCIETY is a journal asking just these questions, or as it says on its home page: “Health Risk & Society is an international scholarly journal devoted to a theoretical and empirical understanding of the social processes which influence the ways in which health risks are taken, communicated, assessed and managed.” Andy Alaszewski, the editor of the journal, invited me to do an introduction to a special issue on the subject of pregnancy and birth. And Andy pointed out that my article was peppered with question marks, and that rhetorical questions are really not appropriate journal style. And yet, as we discussed the problem, he decided that my rhetorical questions were intrinsic to what I was saying and doing, so he let them stand.

What do you think? Is this an unnecessary rhetorical gimmick or flourish? Or do we need to keep asking ourselves these questions?

Click here to read my intro

Midwifery, Nutrition, and Public Health

I've been teaching in Maternal and Child Health, under the discipline of Public Health for a while now, and continually bothered by the direction much of public health has taken.  It seems to me much of the field is about public education on matters of health and medicine, and an enormous push to get more people to more medical services more regularly.  That's not what I thought public health was supposed to be about.  When Ruth Deery and Lorna Davies sent me their volume on nutrition in pregnancy and childbirth and asked me to do a foreword, it gave me a moment of clarity on how we ought to be doing public health and how clinicians ought to be doing public education.  And it reminded me how much I love midwifery.

Read my foreword to Ruth Deery and Lorna Davies, editors, Nutrition in Pregnancy and Childbirth, Taylor and Francis, forthcoming, here.

Thinking about Prenatal Diagnosis -- In German!!!

The lovely thing about having a book translated is very different people, with very different contexts, think about your work.  No more interesting context than Germany exists for my work on Prenatal Testing and its implicit eugenic thinking.  While Americans usually dismiss the idea that there is anything genetic about these tests (they're just to make sure we have healthy babies!) the Germans recognize that search for healthy babies to be precisely what eugenics is ("eu" meaning well, and 'genics" meaning born).  But the hard part about being translated is you really don't understand what's being said about your work!  Recently, Schone Neue Welt der Fortpflanzung was discussed on a radio program in Germany.   So thanks to the kindness of friends, for those who, like me, don't understand German, below is a rough on-the-fly translation of the radio piece, with some commentary.

Listen to the original broadcast here.

Translation on the fly, by Katharina Rost
I listened to it, here the summary:
They have a science book review twice a year always with a special topic. (I am just typing along the program...)
This time it has been value of life.  Two reporters, one presenting two books by women who wrote about their own experiences, another your book. They have a kind of dialogue between these two perspectives. Your perspective, the perspective of the pregnant women.
They present first one book by a mother prenatally diagnosed in pregnancy (like my topic).
Your book is like a reference point, providing a look on society’s for all the other books.  This what they say (I try to type along the program):
"The author is not providing a scientific overview over prenatal diagnosis methods but provides a overview over the development of the last 25 years.  The author has foreseen or really early described what is happening in two parts: one about birth and midwifery, the midwifery model as something which can be put up against the medical system (then they refer that in the others books the women don’t have a midwife, talk about the lack of midwife in the experience of the women).  It’s about pushing the woman out of her own pregnancy.  And pushing out the midwifes and how this all is connected.  The bonding via the ultrasound versus the body-bonding.  The fetus developing to a person out of the symbiosis with the mother.
They talk about the tentative pregnancy (reporter is very surprised, has never heard about it and loves your thoughts :) )
Fetus and mother are put against each other while the woman needs to be seen as a unity (then they refer to the other books, how the women feel the symbiosis, how the medical world is cutting this symbiosis and that for the mothers this symbiosis is not finished; that the mothers don’t seek medical advice but other support).

For BKR is pregnancy as a special time in life, for midwife care model, women need to be seen as active.

Then second part: prenatal diagnosis:
What is to be done with knowledge genetic-- how to feed a child when you know that your child will get sick by 25.  They talk about your writing about PND and the first reporter is always interrupting: Yes, this is how it is! The story of the women is telling exactly this!

Reporter loves your language: her language is emotional and plastic and real and very understandable.

Then another book is presented, very interesting. Another woman who is after the diagnosis researching everything.  After that a historical review about the history of disability politics last century is presented. The last book is about a woman who is killed in the Third Reich by euthanasia.

Conclusion of the reporter is: How are we dealing with disability? What is society doing? 
Today everything is individualized, but who is really deciding? Why are medical experts deciding about moral questions society should decide?
BKR is seeing it as a lost battle because it is proceeding and nobody is putting a limit to it (so you had kind of the last word...)

Very positive reception!!!!!

Midwifery Skills: On Expertise and Craft

Ever since my first Food Studies conference, I've been struck by the similarities between artisanal food makers and midwives.  And jealous of how successful the food people have been, compared to the birth folk, in making their world-view understandable to the general public.  Here's the start of my attempt to do that, published in the British MIDIRS, midwifery information and resource services.

To read MIDIRS's Facebook post about this article, click here.

To read the article itself, click here.

Yet another technological fix to a social problem.

I wrote about a very similar topic back in February, but it comes up again and again. And it probably will come up many more times, even after they stop asking me for a soundbyte. 

According to the article that the people at NPR sent me, it appears that IVF may be somewhat more effective in creating pregnancies than we thought it was.  Or maybe not.  I read the article through and through, and there were a number of different ways to interpret the data.  What do we use for the baseline?  How successful is what we used to call ‘trying’ in achieving a pregnancy?  How successful is ‘unprotected intercourse’ as they sometimes call it?  (How successful is not trying?  Ask young woman if they’ve ever had an ‘accidental’ pregnancy --   it’s not all that rare now is it?)  Anyway, reading the new studies, it seems like if we are willing to buy eggs from younger women, putting them at who-knows-what risk, opening up baby-making to yet more market-place values, raise yet more identity and relationship issues for the children we so conceive, it may indeed be more possible than previously thought for women in their 40’s and up to produce a live baby.  
So what if it is indeed true?  What if the IVF rates, with purchased  eggs (euphemistically called ‘donated,’ but only very rarely does an older woman have a younger woman ready to ‘donate’ eggs for her) are just as good as the pregnancy rates for young women?  What if we just stop arguing the data, and say ‘so what?’  Is it a good thing that young and healthy women who want education and good careers cannot in any way, not in time nor in money nor in energy, afford children?  Is it a good thing for children to become a mid-life project?  Is it a good thing to conquer the biological clock for reproduction if the rest of the biological clock – the one for diabetes, stroke, dementia – keeps ticking?  We’ve had older men fathering children, often second-sets of them, as lovely late-life projects.  But those men usually had young wives to mother the kids, care for them through the aging and death of the father.  These delayed-childbearing women are less likely to have young partners to pick up the reins.  What are we wishing on our children?  And what are the costs for all of the women involved, the ones who delay, the ones who sell eggs, the ones who succeed in late-life baby-making and the ones who don’t?  

To listen to the interview, click here

Human Rights in Childbirth: a conference in the Hague.

For those who care about midwifery and home birth, the Netherlands has stood as a beacon of sanity, a light in the darkness, a ray of hope.  When all over the world midwives lost the power of an independent profession and became some kind of nurse or physician-extender, Dutch midwives remained Midwives.  When all over the world, women moved into hospitals for birth, Dutch women stayed home.  The story is more complicated (all stories always are) but over and over again, those of us arguing for home birth and for midwives turned to the Netherlands.  And we still do, but.... it's getting a bit precarious over there.  The home birth rate is down and dropping, the midwives are finding the appeal of shift work and turning over all the complicated cases to the doctors, the doctors are pushing for more control, the women are watching the same television as everyone else and expecting to be in agony and rescued by epidurals.  As midwives around the world face various forms of state-control, dramatically shown in the recent case of Agnes Gereb who was arrested for doing home births in Hungary, we turn, yet again to the Dutch, and hope they rise to the occasion. 

To learn about the conference, click here.
To read my contribution to the conference, click here.

Surrogacy, Israel, Hitchens….

I haven’t written about or seriously thought about surrogacy in a long time – just not ‘my issue.’  But I remember as clear as yesterday the first time I heard about it.  A reporter called me for a response to the then-new “Baby M” case, in which a hired-surrogate, Mary Beth Whitehead, changed her mind and tried to keep the baby, refusing to turn it over to the purchasing couple, the Sterns.   The reporter said it was all brand new as a case, and I should bear in mind that they hadn’t yet done paternity testing and so it was possible that Mr. Whitehead, not Mr. Stern, was the father.   I said, without a moment’s hesitation: “I don’t care who the father is, we know who the mother is!”  Show me a pregnant woman and I know just who the mother is.
And here I stand, position totally unchanged, almost 25 years and a lot of fancy technology later.  At that point, the pregnancy was created with the equivalent of the turkey-baster:  the purchaser’s semen was placed into the vagina by a medical provider using low-tech tools.  Now, precisely to avoid the kind of case Baby M represented, a lot of much fancier technology is used, to assure that the egg does not come from the hired-surrogate.  But truly, it was not a question of ovum-sourcing that made me see Marybeth Whitehead as the mother of the baby she’d carried and born. 
So for me, nothing’s changed, my position remains solid.  But out there in the world, a lot has changed: Surrogacy is a growth industry.  And like many industries, it profits from globalization:  outsourcing pregnancies to India, once as unimaginable as anything I could now imagine, is routine, fully industrialized and normalized.  And sadly too, like many industries, it comes with its own set of scandals.  A well-known ‘reproductive law specialist,’ popular on the media circuit, has just been sent to jail for what amounts to an even-more direct form of baby selling than is surrogacy.
But still, I’ve been happy to take a back seat, watch, sadly wag my head back and forth and sigh dramatically once in a while.  And then I was asked  to review a book by Elly Teman on the surrogacy industry in Israel. You can read the review here.  Or better yet, go read the book -- obviously Teman and I disagree about surrogacy, but she does write well.  That book got me way past sighing – it made me cry, made me throw things, made me seriously think about cancelling my big annual Passover seder.  I’m not religious enough to have a crisis of faith – but this created a bit of a crisis of identity for me.  That Jews, as Jews, in a Jewish state, applying the logic of Jewish patriarchy, could come up with the system they did – well, do I want to be any kind of a part of that? 

I rescued Passover – my hagaddah is something I’ve developed with family and friends over many years, reflective of our multinational, multiethnic identities, celebrating a human desire to be free of oppression.  And Surrogacy, as practiced in Israel, as practiced in India, cannot be understood as anything but a form of oppression.  Not to my thinking, anyway. 
And then, the review just published, a few letters and comments trickling in in response, I was pulling out my own copy of RECREATING MOTHERHOOD, the one place I did write about surrogacy, and an old review slipped out.  I looked at the photo of a young me, and looked too – with quite a bit of surprise – at the photo of the reviewer: Christopher Hitchens!  I’d forgotten that.  I read it again (and you can too, here), and saw that yes, that was a smart guy, yes he did get what I was saying, and oddest of all, he too connected  it to Israel , even if calling it a digression to “another contemporary controversy, the ‘Who is a Jew?’ debate”   It wasn’t a digression: it showed a true understanding of what this surrogacy business is all about.  Like traditional fatherhood in any patriarchy, the point of baby-making is for people of power to use oppressed people to grow their seeds into their progeny, do the labor, the dirty work, the hard work, and create a child who will bear the name and carry on the life and work and values of the oppressor.  Whether it is in the most traditional, religious framework in which the seed of Abraham can grow through any woman’s body, or in a post-feminist capitalist state in which rich women can hire poor women to be their ‘surrogates,’ this is an ugly business.  Hitchens was left with the ‘strong conviction that the argument could be more civilized if the profit motive could be eliminated from the process of conception. “ 
He said that showed what a na├»ve utopian he was – to me, it sadly showed how smart and how prescient he was. 
Maybe I’ll write more, maybe I’ll just go back to heavy sighing.  I’ll decide after Passover. 

Creating Eggs for Older Women: And for what problem is this the solution?

Another news headline out of the repro-science labs: they can --  maybe eventually, sorta, possibly -- get viable eggs from postmenopausal women.   Asked to chime in on the 'social implications' I have to first wrap my head around why women would want to become mothers in their 50's and 60's.  Is it because we've made it so hard to have kids in our 20's and 30's, when our bodies are most ready for it?  So -- call me crazy -- but might it not make more sense to solve that social problem rather than try to introduce a technological fix?

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