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 where midwifery issues overlap with their concerns. These 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 my 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

Article: Obama's Mixed Heritage - A Mother's Perspective

(See below for link to article)

I wrote this piece at a moment when I really wasn’t allowing myself to be hopeful. Hope was in the air, that ‘yes we can’ feeling was all around – but I just wouldn’t let myself believe it.

But in spite of my doubts, my “Eeyore” tendencies as a friend calls it, I made a party the night of the Democratic Convention’s nomination of Obama. Talk like Eeyore, act like Tigger my friend says – that’ll be my motto. So, Tigger-like, I made a celebratory party.

I called it a ‘Dayenu’ party – Dayenu means ‘It would have been sufficient’ in Hebrew – or so I’m told. I don’t speak any Hebrew. The only part of being Jewish I’ve really hung onto is Passover, the liberation holiday, the celebration of the Exodus, and a holiday that lends itself to endless remaking.

Passover is a home-based holiday, a formal dinner with ritual foods and readings, called a ‘seder.’ I make big celebratory seders every year. And a traditional part of the seder is the singing of “Dayenu.” Each of the steps of the Exodus are recited, with Dayenu sung:

If we had freed ourselves from slavery

And not passed through the sea in safety


If we had passed through the sea in safety

And not learned to survive in the desert


It’s crazy really – what good would the Exodus have done if everybody had drowned? Or wandered endlessly in the desert? But actually it’s not so crazy: the meaning to be taken out of Dayenu is that each step needs to be acknowledged, celebrated for the accomplishment it is.

And that’s what I decided I needed to do about Obama’s nomination. Celebrate it and just enjoy the moment. And if our worst nightmares came true and Sarah Palin ended up being sworn in as President a couple of years later, so be it. There’d be plenty of time to mourn -- and to organize -- then.

So I invited a bunch of people, set up all the laptops we could gather (I don’t own a TV) and opened a bottle of champagne as Obama gave his acceptance speech. I expected to be moved, elated. I was oddly flat. Conventions are so, well, conventional, you know? And not having a TV, I kinda lost the ability to listen to that standardized rhetoric. So sure, celebrate, champagne, hope, yeah maybe we can at that, whatever. I did all the steps of celebration, but pfeh. Stood there surrounded by laptops blaring speeches, feeling nothing.

And then the wives came up on stage after the speech. You’d think I’d be made miserable by that too – the old ‘farmer takes a wife’ style of the thing. But in all the ritual, a magic moment happened for me – Joe Biden hugged Michelle Obama, and – the moment! – Obama hugged Jill Biden. My eyes filled, my throat closed. I remember when a black man was not allowed to touch a white woman on television. Some scene from my childhood about Sammie Davis Jr I think it was, shock and horror, oh no, not happening. And here was a Black man embracing a white woman – and my god, it was the Presidential Nominee hugging the wife of the Vice Presidential nominee. Grab that champagne! Things do change! There is hope! Yes! We can!

And we did.


Read article here.

Article: Writing Ourselves in Sociology

(See below for link to article)

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about writing, thinking about the craft of it – because I’m teaching it. You really need to understand something if you have to teach it.

I developed a doctoral seminar on ‘Writing for Publication’ after a few of our students complained that there wasn’t enough mentoring for publishing. My first reaction to that was irritation: You’ve got to be kidding! I spend half my life doing that. But then I thought about it and realized that sure, I did that for my students, and some of my colleagues did it for theirs, but some of our students – well, they fell between the cracks. We no longer have an ‘old boys network’ that sees to it that upper class white men get the mentoring they need. But there still are networks – ‘interesting’ students, students doing ‘interesting’ work – they get mentored. But some people, maybe more shy, maybe doing work that doesn’t grab the attention of any of the faculty, they just muddle through, putting things together for themselves.

So I developed this course, made mentoring for publication an entitlement – anyone who registered would get the mentoring. It required me to think through so many things, all mixed up with ordinary ones we always think about and new ones I’d never actually had to verbalize – how to title an article; how to choose journals for submissions, what works as a presented paper at a meeting, how much can you re-use material from one publication to another… on and on. The course is a year long – we meet every other week for a full academic year. It takes that long to grow publications; things planted in the fall don’t start flowering till spring.

Having done it as a course, I found myself doing it as short workshops at conferences. And suddenly a whole new set of ethical issues arose for me -- all kinds of ethical questions beyond simple IRB (Internal Review Board) questions about ‘protection of human subjects.’ For one thing, when I have a person taking the workshop whose work I don’t particularly admire – why on earth am I helping them publish it? Is that the right thing for me to be doing? I had that realization in a flash at a workshop at a meeting that will remain nameless: someone asked a question and I thought ‘why on god’s earth am I helping this jerk perpetuate this awful work?’ So now I am VERY selective about where I will do this workshop.

But this piece – I think it’s still OK. I am basically asking people to be more there, more present in their work. And that is something I want, both for the good people and, frankly even more so for the jerks.


Read article here.

Talk: Midwives as Artisanal Workers

I've been working on this paper over the past year, presenting versions of it to the Japanese Midwives Association, to the Canadian Association of Midwives and to the Midwives Alliance of North America. This is an abstract, just something to get us started on rethinking how we talk about midwifery.

Click here to view paper.

Article: Stem Cell Research

(See below for link to article)

When I wrote this, Bush was still President and the overwhelming conservative agenda was – well, overwhelming. Everything related to bioethics and medicine was filtered through that lens.

We’re at a different moment now. I just completed my term on an Embryonic Stem Cell Oversight committee, created to do basically compliance reviews of research involving embryonic stem cells. We had to ascertain if proposed research met the standards – used ‘approved cell lines,’ involved appropriate informed consent from donors, etc. It was strange – all those bioethics and IRB (Internal Review Board) things are. We had this odd narrow view, making sure the research met the requirements for embryonic stem cells, and as I say in this article, that’s so tied up in the abortion issue all else fades away.

We found this hard, many of us on the committee, for a variety of reasons. One day I found myself having to approve a project that involved sacrificing many, many mice. I don’t want to kill mice. They’re cute. And harmless. They weren’t even in my kitchen making pests of themselves – they’d been bred specifically to die for science. Do I want their blood on my hands? (Laugh all you want. I had to actually say out loud that it was OK, that the research project passed standards. There’s probably a hell in which I’ll have to explain that to mice) Other people had hard times with projects that maybe did and maybe didn’t come off so clean on the specific embryonic stem cell issues – the project could possibly lead to cures for some horrible disease that little babies were dying of, right across the street in the hospital. You want to say NO to something that just involves cells on a dish because you’re not sure of the origin of the cell line, if it was or wasn’t one of the ones Bush ‘grandfathered’ in? Could you say NO to something that could save little babies’ lives because of a technicality?

I found that committee endlessly difficult – forever arguing about the most trivial of issues while the most significant passed us by, not our purview, someone else’s jurisdiction. But as long as Bush was President, as long as the conservative agenda dominated biomedicine, I felt I had to stick around.

Thanks Obama! I owe you one.


Read article here.

Article: Genetic Counseling

Genetic Counseling: Placing the Room in Context by Barbara Katz Rothman

Read here.