Religion, Emotion, and Spirituality in American Hospital Childbirth

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This project uses the theoretical lenses of the medical humanities to contextualize 48 interviews that I conducted with providers and patients who labor in hospital settings. Selecting for women and providers who view spirituality or religion as important components of hospital birth, these interviews provide a unique perspective. Focusing on the meanings of the birth process and its spiritual significance in the narratives provided by subjects, the interviews suggest the possibility for providers and patients to view birth in the hospital as simultaneously a spiritually and religiously significant life-cycle event, and a medical event. Examining these interviews, a paradox emerges. On the one hand, providers and patients often experience hospital birth as a spiritually or religiously significant event. As obstetrician Samantha Percival described: “It’s a very . . . almost sacred time to be allowed to watch. Kind of like, I would imagine from a worldly sense, a star being born.” At the same time, in the discourse surrounding hospital birth, discussions of spirituality or religion are consistently marginalized. By focusing on the ritual and symbolic practices that pervade hospital birth, and on the narrative, metaphorical, and structural constraints that hospital-based care places on both providers and patients, this project aims to lend understanding to this paradox. I also hope to provide some practical suggestions, both narrative and structural, of ways in which providers and patients can work to facilitate an experience of birth as sacred in whichever location it occurs.

birth, obstetrics, midwifery, religion, spirituality, medicine, home birth, doula